A Black Civil War soldier and his family sit for a portrait in formal clothes.
A photograph found in Cecil County, Maryland, shows a Union soldier and his family sitting for a portrait. Their identities are unknown. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

The Problem With Patriotism

I can’t ignore what this country has done to Black people. How do I find my place in it?

About the author: Sasha Banks is the author of america, MINE.

In 2008, during a campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin, to elect her husband as the first Black president, Michelle Obama said it was then, for the first time in her adult life, that she felt proud of her country. I was 19 years old; this would be my first election. I had never felt proud of my country. I had never heard anyone say that out loud before.

I was 12 when the Twin Towers crumbled on the TV monitor in my science teacher’s classroom. September 11 energized something latent and eager in everyone around me that I couldn’t find in myself. There were people, borders, and a country to protect, some connective ownership, as plumes of American flags sprouted up on every front door and porch in our neighborhood except ours.

When I was an undergrad, a professor used the word we to tell stories of war and colonization and I balked, though I didn’t understand my own indignation. Obama’s admission threw a stark light on it: I’d never felt a part of this country, because history’s glare would not allow me to be that negligent.

History is always behind me and before me. I am a Black woman born and living in America since 1988. While memorizing the presidents, I interrupted my fourth-grade class to tell my teacher, “Thomas Jefferson has descendants who are Black.” “That’s not true,” she said. “How would that be possible?” “It is true! He had babies with one of his slaves. They said it on BET News.”

“Then that’s not real news. Do you know what BET stands for?” she asked. I sat up straighter.

“Black Entertainment Television,” I said. She argued that entertainment meant the story couldn’t be true and that it was unpatriotic to so freely believe such disparaging stories about my country.

My country. The one I was encouraged to fear and revere from an early age. I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, in a Christian school that maintained a robust production of allegiances. My teachers explained that one must treat the American flag much the same way one treated a Bible, with the utmost care. Every morning began with a chorus of “Onward, Christian soldiers”—Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before—followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, recited with the body angled sharp toward the American flag. Well-behaved students were chosen weekly for the privilege of carrying the American, Christian, and Alaskan flags into morning assembly, and warned against letting the American flag touch the ground. In my childish naïveté, I supposed that anyone who made the mistake of letting the flag skirt the floor would be cursed with a lifetime of bad luck.

A sense of national dread loomed over my early life. The books I read, the news I watched, the conversations that happened around me deepened that wariness into distrust, forming a permanent disconnect between me and America. I was 23 when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. I was 24 when George Zimmerman was acquitted. I was 25 when Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, and I turned 26 days before the state decided that he would not be indicted. As the deaths of Martin and Brown followed me into young adulthood, my new rage broke apart any notion of a cohesive national identity.

The patriot identity limits our ability as citizens to collectively revolutionize the American infrastructure. It is a national identity that observes the flaws of the system and, instead of considering abolition to address the root of the problems, aims simply to reshape or reform.

The distance between me and the country made it difficult to figure out how to ground myself. I would clearly never be a patriot. It took years for me to understand that Blackness is a thing that self-defines. I would need to learn to define myself.

For two years, I indicted the United States on the page and in weekly critiques during my M.F.A. program at Pratt Institute. In one critique, my professor suggested that for all my rage and desire for institutional destruction, she suspected that I cared about this country quite a lot. I was incredulous. Caring would make me a patriot, and no word felt emptier or more distant. If I didn’t care, what was this feeling, this desire to find an answer for what I was in this country?

Months later I made a map, partnered with a cinematographer, and drove the question around to Black communities in Mississippi, Georgia, and North Carolina to film a documentary about Blackness’s relationship to patriotism. I feared coming off as a bitter Black woman whose motivation for interrogating her placement in and relationship to this country was to prove how unspectacular it is. Spending any amount of time identifying the country’s innumerable wrongs, failures, and contradictions, I worried, would be perceived as immature.

Still, I had to know who else had circled this question, and what name it had led them to. “Have you named yourself a patriot?” I would ask. “What has it cost you? What has it won you?” And while the responses varied, what mattered was the option of naming. My Blackness within the arbitrarily drawn lines of a stolen country liberated me to name and resist being named.

I sat down in Powder Springs, Georgia, with my aunt Alberta, a program manager for an education nonprofit. She spoke about the fact that because white people need to protect the system that protects them, they believe maintaining the status quo is what makes them patriots. This belief allows white people to co-opt the term. I sat with Black people that had long rejected the concept of a “national” identity altogether. Doing so allowed them to commit their allegiance to their local communities; effecting change in front of their own eyes, protecting one another, prioritizing care for their people without the slightest regard for any national noise clanging above their heads. A communal identity could be considered in opposition to a national identity, the loyalty shifting away from the conservation of the American structure and toward the protection of the people most harmed by it.

Blackness consistently self-defines on the grounds of America’s unsustainable landscape. That rift was all the space I needed to craft an identity for myself: an American confessor. Confessor because I had no stake in preserving the fantasy of the American experiment. Confessor because naming the failures of a country validates our experiences as citizens. What I wanted, what my writing asked of me, was to confess the truth of this country in order to trouble its easy notions. And while that identity felt true to me, finally in the most connective way, it was too big. Conspiratorial, I worried.

But weeks after my conversation with Aunt Alberta, in 2017, I sat in a bus terminal in Boston, and noticed the American painter Kara Walker on the cover of New York magazine’s Art and Design issue. As I read, I was struck by a kind of joy: Walker, too, had been named a confessor, defined as someone “exposing the terrors of sentimentalist history.” I smiled to myself at what seemed an impossible coincidence or uncanny affirmation to tell the truth, point at it, stand next to it unflinching. My distrust was born that day in fourth grade, when it was implied that I was gullible and anti-American to believe something believable—and true—about a place brimming with ghastly truths. I tried to prove my sense wrong when the country kept proving me right and right and right. And maybe it is anti-American to tell those truths: to name everything until there is nothing left.