In a country built on protest, blacks are dubbed anti-American for taking a political stand – or a knee. African-Americans are just as patriotic as their white counterparts – and just as committed to the American experiment.
What is love?
Is it an emotion? An act? An energy? A chemical reaction? Just a word? Even if you’re able to settle on an answer to this centuries-old riddle, it’s unlikely that the next person who reads this will make the same selection. Love is a nuanced perplexity almost as difficult to describe as the color red. So, why then, if we can hardly define it, do some people insist that there’s a right way to do it, to feel it, to give it, to receive it? Sometimes it’s all-consuming and bright; at other moments troublesome and muddy. And that’s just when one person loves another.
Love of country is even more complicated – especially this country whose love for its black inhabitants has historically looked much more like hate. To rebut, our love for America is often tough, a frustrated, screeching cry for her to be as great as we know she could be, should be. But the affection is there, behind the anger and despite charges that our raised voices are evidence of disloyalty. Whether we stand tall and salute the flag or kneel before it, just as there’s no one right way to love a partner, there is no single right way to be an American.
Sgt. Joshua Woodside joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. In true military-man fashion he appears for BLAC’s cover shoot well before the time he’s given. He’s at the studio already when we arrive and greets us with a big smile and a respectful handshake. The Birmingham, Alabama native is eager to participate and gush about his love for the Marines – and for America.
Woodside says it was the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program that first infected him with the military bug. “As soon as I hit that JROTC program in high school, I was like, ‘Yo, this is legit,'” he says. It was the structure and the leadership that Woodside most appreciated. “Ever since then, I just knew the military was my calling. I just didn’t – at that time – know which branch I wanted to join.” Sitting down with a Marine Corps recruiter and absorbing his talk of higher education, self-confidence, courage, the opportunity to cultivate leadership and management skills and “having that pride of belonging” is what attracted Woodside. He’s been a Marine for seven years now, and his pride for his country beams as bright as the buttons on his pristinely pressed uniform.
“With the Marine Corps, we win wars, we win our nation’s battles, and we return quality citizens back to their hometowns, and that’s what I got out of it. And, oh, my gosh, it’s just so amazing,” he says. He’s not been deployed but spent three years stationed at Parris Island, home to the 8,095-acre recruit training base in Port Royal, South Carolina to which 20,000 Marine Corps recruits come annually. Then it was nearly two years in Iwakuni, Japan at a mission-ready air station. Now he’s a recruiter for the Madison Heights and Detroit area.
Woodside doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked whether he felt any conflict of spirit being a black man in America’s military. “Oh, absolutely not,” he says. “Whatever conflict was going on at the time, it never really even fazed me. All I knew was what the Marine Corps was, how it would help me reach my long-term and short-term goals, and what it would do for me. That was main focus.”
His experience as a Marine has been free from racially related incidents, he says. “A lot of people that join the military – especially the ones that just walk into the office and say, ‘I want to be a Marine’ or ‘I want to be in the Army’ – they feel as though the country has given so much to them (and) that they have some sort of obligation that says, ‘I want to give back, I want to fight for my country that has fought for me.’ I felt the same way.”
Vivian Collins is 85 years old, and the Southfield resident has been an avid voter since she’s been old enough to venture to the polls. She’s got her absentee ballot for the upcoming Aug. 7 primaries filled out and ready to be dropped in the mail as we speak. “My mother and I would vote most primary and the major elections,” she says – important because she’s a believer “that all votes count, that it meant something and would have the ability to affect change.”
Collins also served as a precinct delegate in the ’80s or ’90s; she can’t quite recall. “I would have to give a guesstimate,” she says. “We were primarily responsible to our area to encourage our neighbors to get out to vote.” But “I didn’t like the operation; there was a clique.” She says certain delegates took it upon themselves to make decisions and move on behalf of the lot and shut out those they didn’t view as important. “You had to be in the group to be recognized. So I wasn’t as serious as I could’ve been,” she admits. Still, she’s been steadfast in her commitment to exercising her own right to vote, despite periods of disappointment.
She says that often, “The result does not give you the patriotic feeling. That’s why (there are) the protests, that’s why people are averse to that (voting). Because you put your energy in, you go to the poll, you stand in line, you exercise your right to vote, and then – first of all, so many candidates have not been truthful.” Collins goes on to contend that many politicians make promises that they rarely keep, whether it’s because they never had any intentions to or because they’re halted at the pass. “Nobody can really do all that they promise, because whatever is on the docket with the current administration has to take precedence over whatever (the candidate) brings to the table. And as (the candidate) is only one person, you cannot affect all of these changes.” So, why does she still vote? “Because I still have hope.”
In 2008, before Barrack Obama was elected president, city clerk Janice Winfrey helped register two women in their 90s – who, unlike Collins, had never voted before in their lives. Winfrey says, “I asked them, ‘Why have you never voted previously?’ And their response was very simple. They said they felt like this was the first time that there was someone that they really wanted to vote for. For these two African-American, 90-year-old sisters, for them, for over 70 years, they saw no interest, no value in voting. But we know as American citizens, our reality is that we live in a democratic republic that grants all power to the people. And when we don’t vote, we give up that power.”
Winfrey reminds that, per the Constitution, elections must happen and, as citizens, we are permitted to participate. “It’s one of the most fundamental rights that we have as citizens of the United States,” she says. “The right to vote is not perceived power, but that’s actual power. In my opinion, not voting is like living next to a body of water and you’re dying of thirst.”
John Sloan III, one of two co-lead organizers for Black Lives Matter’s Detroit chapter, nearly followed a path similar to that of Sgt. Woodside. His grandfather was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of black fighter pilots who saw action in World War II. “He said that he volunteered because there was this perception, this idea that if they went over and served and did their best, there was no way they could still be denied rights when they came home,” Sloan says.
Of course, they were naïve in that regard. He says his grandfather never said he regretted his decision, but Sloan says he got the sense that there was some disheartenment – “but not so far as to be jaded, because he was a history major, and he loved the idea of America, and that’s what he called it. He called it ‘an idea.’ And it was poorly executed, but it was an idea that was still worth exploring and fighting for.”
All of his grandfather’s brothers also served. On the wall of Sloan’s dad’s office hangs the American flags given to him at Arlington National Cemetery when his dad (Sloan’s grandfather) and uncle passed. “I have this really convoluted relationship with the American flag and with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,'” Sloan says. “And as a musician, I’ve been asked to perform the national anthem at different events, and so I try really hard to find the nuance. And I believe a lot the time, today, it’s difficult or people aren’t asked to carry more than two things in their brain at a time. It’s very binary. It’s either you love America, and if you do, then you express it in this way: You wear stars and stripes, and you go to barbecues, and you always support the troops, and you donate to all these things, and you stand for the national anthem, and it’s all that stuff. Or you hate America, and you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum.”
As a black man in America, things are hardly so cut and dried for Sloan. “I have a really hard time celebrating what America was 50 years ago or 100 years ago or 150 years ago, and a large amount of the aspects of America right now,” he says. But considering his grandfather’s philosophy of the idea of America, of a nation built on “equity,” one determined “to center and to honor all individuals, then to me, there’s nothing that aligns more with that idea than our ability to protest. If that’s not a core principle to the idea of America, then somebody needs to rewrite the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and thereby stop holding those documents up as foundational principles.”
Sloan raises the topic of NFL players kneeling – and points to the fact that white player Tim Tebow knelt, sans accusations of disrespect, on the sidelines during the national anthem to pray long before quarterback Colin Kaepernick ever knelt to protest racial injustices. “People are objecting to the reason, they’re not objecting to the act. To have a conversation about the reason is to be made to face your prejudice, and to be made to face the institutionalization of oppression in this country, and that’s something that they just blatantly do not want to do.” He wants to recite a quote, but it’s evading him at the moment. We end our phone conversation, but he calls back a few minutes later. He’s got it: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality can seem like oppression.”
To join the local movement or learn more about Black Lives Matter, visit blmdetroit.com.