My late sister used to love a song by Lee Greenwood, “God Bless the U.S.A.” Whenever we were driving someplace—she had the license; I was in the passenger seat—she’d turn up the radio and sing the chorus loudly: “And I’m proud to an American/where at least I know I’m free…”
I’d join in, but after the song ended, we’d laugh at ourselves. As the daughters of Black Nationalists, we’d been taught, a song like Mr. Greenwood’s wasn’t really for us.
Our parents had schooled us on the history of American black folks so we knew about Crispus Attucks, the first man to fall in the Boston Massacre of 1770. We knew about the black men who had fought in the continental army during the American Revolution. Though George Washington did his best to try to stop black military participation, there were approximately five thousand African American soldiers in the Revolutionary War. That was just on the American side.
In my family, there was my paternal great-great-grandfather who had fought in the Civil War in a “colored” Union company. My father served in World War II as a first lieutenant, becoming one of the early black commissioned officers, and on mama’s side of the family, every one of her brothers were veterans.
But regardless of those histories of military service, my parents would stand, fists raised, Afros tall, at football games while the national anthem played. They never put their hands over their hearts.
At the time, I didn’t ask what they were doing and for some reason, they never explained. Years later when I saw a documentary about the 1968 Olympics, about when John Carlos and Tommy Smith protested the treatment of American black people by raising their fists on the medal podium, I understood, finally. My parents had been showing solidarity with two, young men whose entire lives had been ruined because of a protest that didn’t even last ten minutes.
In my family, we talked a lot about what “black” meant. My parents argued that anybody who had ancestors from Africa was a “black” person. For example, there were Spanish-speaking folks who lived in the Caribbean, but to my parents, they were black folks. It didn’t matter if their skins weren’t as dark as Africans’ or if somebody could pull a fine-tooth comb through their hair. All those Puerto Ricans? They were black, my parents insisted.
The history of Puerto Rico does prominently include the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was a Spanish colony (founded by the geographically inept Christopher Columbus). Enslaved Africans were brought to the island in the sixteenth century and worked crops that included sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco. Soon, Africans outnumbered everyone else. A recent study of inhabitants of the island found that the average Puerto Rican has 20% African DNA.
After the Spanish American war, Puerto Rico was transferred from Spain to the U.S. Of course, this happened without any real input from a majority of the island’s inhabitants. (That’s how things work with colonialism.)
Puerto Ricans gained citizenship in 1917 and the island was named a U.S. Commonwealth in 1952, and many Puerto Ricans have honorably served in the American military. Yet a surprising number of their fellow citizens on the mainland don’t know—or recognize—Puerto Ricans as “real” Americans. Not many of us mainland black folks understand the intersections of our African history with Puerto Ricans’, either.
Kids are embarrassed by their parents, and I was no different. As an adult, I looked back at those football games, at my parents’ raised fists. I muttered many “Lord Have Mercies” in remembrance. I laughed at my hardcore, fierce mama and daddy.–And yet now, there is new generation of African American men and women protesting while the National Anthem plays at sports events. They don’t raise their fists, though. Now, they take a knee.
Now, for an entire week, while people of color in Puerto Rico have suffered the after effects of two back-to-back hurricanes—going without food and medicine, walking through contaminated street water they can’t even drink, breathing the stench of dead bodies that have been unearthed from their graves—our president has ignored them. He’s ignored his own citizens.
President Trump’s voice has remained calm while he says, he’ll get around to helping Puerto Rico. In a week or two, maybe. He never explains why he was quickly on the case about Texas and Florida, when earlier hurricanes hit those places. He has never acknowledged them as Americans; instead he’s distanced himself by tweeting about the island’s “broken infrastructure” and “massive debt,” as if those issues don’t directly correlate to over a century of mainland exploitation of Puerto Rico.
And I think of my parents insisting, those people in the Caribbean are black. They are just like us, and I wonder, is their African heritage why Puerto Ricans are getting treated so badly?
Is this African heritage why Puerto Ricans are going without clean drinking water, while President Trump fights with Colin Kaepernick, some mainland black kid forty years younger than he is, about how Kap should act when an arguably racist song plays?
Like African Americans, Puerto Ricans are not treated as “real” Americans, and this week, I’ve wondered, just what exactly are the standards for that “realness”? What is the high bar that must be met?
Must one be born on American soil to be a “real” American? That doesn’t seem to cover it for people of color.
Must one’s birth parents—and previous ancestors going back three or four hundred years—be born on American soil? That doesn’t cover it, either.
Must one be a veteran of American military conflicts or be descended from veterans? Nope. I guess that doesn’t count.
Twelve years ago, African American survivors of Hurricane Katrina were called “refugees” in their own country. Americans citizens were labeled with vocabulary one reserves for foreigners.
I remember pictures of the aftermath of Katrina. Dark people, standing on tiny plots of dry land, waving their arms and looking desperate and parched. Walking through flood water. Labeled criminals for foraging food. There were signs of huge letters that had been drawn on rooftops. The words begged someone—anyone—to come help, in the names of God and decency.
This past week, I saw the same images from Puerto Rico, only the signs were begging in Spanish.
And I think of those young black men and women who have been vilified by our president for protesting the treatment of people of African descent in this country, who keep asking, “How long until we are considered ‘real’ Americans?”
These young black folks are courageously risking their livelihoods while our leader—who is supposed to be the President of all of us—calls them names and urges their white bosses to fire these uppity, dark individuals. Let them love this country that consistently spits in their faces. Show some gratitude for dodging bullets fired by police officers.
Is it any wonder there is a new generation of quiet revolutionaries, that a new group of black kids are so eager to protest?