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Loving America is Complicated

Even President Obama can’t seem to show his patriotism the “right” way

On his critically adored To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar raps, “Loving u is complicated, loving u is complicated.” The “u” here is self-referential, Lamar drowning in negative self-talk and the anti-black messages that fill our airwaves and our heads. But I can’t help but feel that the “u” being addressed on the track of the same name is also America. For those of us living at the margins, loving America can indeed be complicated. More often than not, it is an exercise in compliance.

President Barack Obama in front of an American flag during the 2011 State of the Union address. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Do you love America? You should be grateful to even live here! If you don’t like it, GET OUT!”

Even our first black president is not immune to this faux patriotic line of argument, most recently expressed by Rudy Giuliani (“he apologizes for America, he criticizes America”) and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who flat-out accused Barack Obama of wanting to “take down America.” Perhaps our first black president is especially not immune. To the sane woman or man, there should be no doubt that Obama loves America. Issues with specific policies of his administration aside, the problem seems to be that he just doesn’t love America in the “right” way, the same way he isn’t the “right” color in the minds of some.

While certainly not all criticism of President Obama is steeped in racism, political opponents and critics seem to bear a racial animus towards him, which is often conveyed in the sneakiest of ways: The strange refusal by conservative media to refer to him as President Obama, rather than just “Obamuh,” for instance. It’s hard to imagine Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagging her finger in the face of Bill Clinton post-Lewinsky the way she did to Obama in 2012. And the same people criticizing the way our current president’s daughters dress had nothing to say about George W. Bush’s party twin daughters going H.A.M. while their father was still president.

While conservative talking heads and Congressional grifters are downright disrespectful and occasionally (c)overtly racist, our president is expected not to “play the race card,” not to be “soft on terror,” not to succumb to the “gay agenda” or otherwise act as a freedom-hating Socialist, as he was branded by Gov. Rick Perry during the 2012 presidential election. It is as though President Obama, by “apologizing for” and even “criticizing” his nation and its people when we inevitably fall down, regress, or face a collective challenge, is committing a treasonous act in the hearts and minds of these lovers of freedom.

A photo of an American flag with Obama's image, purposefully flipped vertically by Flickr user SnowLepard who claims the flag itself is a disgrace and should be displayed upside-down.

Invoking the ugly rhetoric of the truther movement that demanded proof of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, former New York City mayor Giuliani’s insistence that our president doesn’t love his country while speaking at an event for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was in line with a years-long argument that these types have put forth: That Barack Obama is a traitorous outsider committed to the collapse of the American Dream. Even Giuliani’s ass-covering maneuver following the fallout, stating that, “I do hear him criticize America much more often than other American presidents,” is a head-scratcher at best. I would venture to say that someone serving two terms as president loves America on a number of levels, even while he tries to claw his way back toward campaign promises to make this country even better neutered by political immobility.

But isn’t love more meaningful when there’s a desire for the object of one’s affection to be the best that it can be? I love this country, but not for what it is, and certainly not for what it was. But rather, for what it could be. I’d imagine the same is true of President Obama. Frankly, this place still doesn’t feel like home, some days more so than others. Every news break of a black life ended far too soon at the hands of police, every clutched purse, every ridiculous microaggression degrades the connection I try to feel with the America of past and present. Perhaps I’ll be searching for a connection to my nation my whole life. I know that I’m not alone in this.

For what bad there is, I am grateful to have been born in this time in America. And though I don’t necessarily agree, I can understand where the “THIS IS THE GREATEST COUNTRY ON EARTH” set is coming from. But those of us who have lived in the long shadow of mountainous oppression—still seeking good ole American freedom, both to exist and to prosper, to be recognized as human, even—know that there is still work to be done, primarily by the oppressors and the privileged. In the land of opportunity, blacks and other people of color, women, immigrants, LBGTQ individuals, and others who grew up outside the white, heteronormative, middle class are still continuously betrayed by the promise of the American Dream. Loving this country that doesn’t love us back, as unconditionally as we’re expected to, is at best complicated, at worst painful and unhealthy.

America loves patting itself on the back over “progress” that’s been made, but today we’re seeing conscious efforts to preserve old prejudices, against gays and lesbians, against minority political power, against women, that signals a moral regression among some Americans, driven by fear. It is of course this fear that drives the hate that can make America feel like less than home for many. “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law,” wrote James Baldwin, pointing to the fact that the desire to see us do better as a society is for the sake of the oppressed as much as it is for the oppressor.

A photo of an Obama protestor in 2007. Photo by Jonathan Dressner via Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to love someone when they’ve said one thing, and done the complete opposite, let alone for a few centuries. There is a crossroads that must reached in the lived experiences of the privileged among us. It involves the decision as to whether to engage in a dialogue that may feel uncomfortable or objectionable. And there is vigorous action that must follow. We’re thankfully seeing a trend towards individuals more readily shining a light on the ugliness still prevalent in America, but there is much darkness yet to be uncovered.

On “The Blacker The Berry,” Lamar raps “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” referencing his dodgy comments regarding the recent unrest bubbling over in Ferguson ("But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within,”) and his tonal shift towards conscious rap with To Pimp A Butterfly. And maybe with this, Lamar is a true American, representing both sides of today’s patriotism, at once hypocritical and self-aware, boastful and humble. Wanting to be better as a nation should be our common goal, and the only Americans who are set on taking down the United States are the ones who are trying to hold the country back.

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