A story about Black athletes and patriotism told by a fan.
The Black community’s relationship with the notion of American patriotism has long been fraught with the tension that comes with this nation’s history.
It is deeply rooted in ground toiled by Black bodies, who – for centuries under slavery followed by Jim Crow – survived multiple iterations of disenfranchisement. It can be difficult to believe, given that historical context, that we continue to live, grow and build as proud Americans who are eager to achieve the same dreams our White counterparts so easily obtain.
That’s resilience. For many, that patriotism comes naturally. It radiates with the perseverance of our ancestors, who fought with heart and signed with blood for their right to be free, to desegregate, to vote. It’s the dilemma of knowing only this land as the land of your people, that feeling of gratefulness that somehow you are a citizen of this nation. It’s the feeling you get even when acknowledging our painful past, no matter how traumatizing, because we are the architects of America. And even though we’re still fighting for liberation, that patriotism drives us to protect this nation, to fight for it, to defend a freedom that wasn’t always afforded to us.
For others, these are the very’ reasons it’s difficult to feel anything when red, white and blue fabric ripples through America’s skies on the Fourth of July. That spark of patriotism, surging through veins at baseball games when the national anthem is sung, escapes many’. They stand with arms at their sides. The hesitancy to place hand on heart to pledge allegiance may come from a feeling of betrayal. After all, the well-known phrase “justice for all” can seem like mockery considering the harmful impact of police brutality and our failed criminal justice system on Black lives.
That’s understandable. That’s self-preservation. It’s for this reason I had only twice ever felt the swell of pure patriotism in my life: once as a senior in college, when a young senator named Barack Obama became the first African-American to be elected president of the United States; and some years earlier in the aftermath of September n, 2001. (This was also met with some complexity as I watched hate crimes against Muslims and other brown people increase.)
Days after the Rio Olympic Games ended, I added a third time to that list: August 2016.
With a mind to skip the Olympics in the name of human rights injustices ignored by’ the International Olympic Committee, I found it hard to keep my word as I caught clips of Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas flipping their way to gold. And it continued. Michelle Carter put her name in the books as the first American woman to win gold in the shot put. Simone Manuel reminded an entire nation why Black representation in swimming is so important. Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first of American Black athletes to compete while wearing the hijab. Venus and Serena, despite a small stumble, taught us all that cumulative achievement matters (they’re still winning). Allyson Felix ran her way to become the most decorated American woman in Olympic track and field history.
Black Girl Magic dominated the screen and the Games.The diversity of these women, paired with the diversity of their teams, spoke to a U.S. we could be proud of. An inclusive place where we all start at the same line, on the same mark. No shortcuts. No privileges. When Manuel completed her history-making lap, the look of realization on her face that she had just become the first African- American female swimmer to receive an individual Olympic medal made my heart feel as if it would explode. When Claressa Shields stood in utter disbelief at becoming the first U.S. boxer to win consecutive gold medals, I screamed hoarsely at my phone screen. The joy I felt as an American woman was staggering.
To see Black athletes and thus the whole Black race win — while marginalized, disenfranchised and largely ignored save for snippets of our culture—was American to me. A place where we could dream. And be free.
It would be easy to credit the Rio Games with restoring the patriotism I search for in moments of isolation—at sporting events, during Independence Day parties, in largely White spaces where no one considers the Black experience in this country. But I know that not to be entirely accurate. While these Olympics surely helped me become comfortable in declaring a connection to America, they only proved what I and many know to be true: The diversity of the Games and how Black women slayed are what’s reflective of this nation. Even if the rhetoric we hear is not.