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An African American Reflects on the Fourth

<i> Theron C. Colbert, an electrical engineer, is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy stationed at Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station</i>

As we celebrate our nation’s 222nd birthday this weekend, I’d like to offer some thoughts on what it means to me to be an American and why I have chosen to serve in the military for the past 14-plus years.

While watching John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood” the other night on television, I thought back to when I first saw this movie several years ago in a theater. During the scene in which actor Laurence Fishburne tells his young son, referring to Vietnam, “A black man has no reason to serve in a white man’s army,” some of my fellow moviegoers applauded and even yelled out, “That’s right!”

Even back then, I thought to myself, “How sad for these people to think like that, to be supporting such misguided words.”

Yes, it’s true that many black Americans feel they have no reason to support an allegedly racist government and country. But I believe it’s more likely that many black parents just didn’t want their sons to go to some far off place and get killed--for any reason.

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This statement presupposes that this country somehow “belongs” to white Americans only. The ancestors of most black Americans have been here just as long, if not longer, as those of most whites. And I venture to say that it would be quite a challenge for anyone to argue whose ancestors worked harder or sacrificed more to build up this country and make it the strongest economic and military power in the world.

I’d also dare to speculate that most black Americans stood to lose just as much, if not more, than many white Americans if this country had not interceded in the international wars it has participated in, from World War I and II and Korea to Desert Storm.

Much has been reported and written about how black GIs in past wars were fighting for a country and a military that did not accept or even want them. And how upon returning from war, they came back to a society that still chose to reject them.

Although it is quite unfortunate that events such as these have happened all too often, they let the people of this country know that black soldiers, sailors and Marines could be counted upon for their support and sacrifice when needed.

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Black American servicemen and women continue this tradition today. I find it ironic that while blacks account for a disproportionately high percentage of those involved in the justice system (and are thus often thought of as criminals) they also account for a disproportionately high percentage of those in the military service--yet they are not thought of as being patriotic.

Blacks are patriotic, all right. Very much so. But we are in a way that most small-minded people, black or white, would find difficult to comprehend.

I will admit that when it comes to the Fourth of July, I don’t think much about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. And I also don’t think much about Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or other members of our nation’s first Continental Congress.

Like many other black Americans, I view Independence Day sort of like most Americans view Columbus Day. Oh sure, everyone takes the day off, all right. But it seems to me as if this holiday does not carry any significant meaning to most Americans (except maybe for those who live in Columbus--Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Indiana, etc). Most Americans are intelligent enough to realize that it’s nonsense to celebrate the “discovering” of a land that was already inhabited by millions of people who spoke their own languages, had their own governments and territories established and which had already been “discovered” by Africans and other Europeans long before Columbus’ time.

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As everyone knows, in 1776 blacks were still enslaved in this country. And even after America’s “independence” from England, slave traders continued to bring millions more blacks from Africa. So, if you think about it, it really doesn’t make much sense for black Americans to feel a spirit of celebration on the Fourth of July.

To most black Americans, our “independence” didn’t come in 1776 or even in 1863 with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. To some, it didn’t come until about 100 years after that.

The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 were, in a sense, our first true documents of liberation. Mainly because of the volatile and controversial era in which they were signed.

When most Americans hear the phrase “Let Freedom Ring,” they think of our patriotic song “America.” But when I hear it, I tend to think of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have A Dream” speech. Medgar Evers was our Nathan Hale--one of our first and most prominent soldiers to be executed in the revolution to come.

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And even long before and after him, our casualties of war were the tens of thousands of blacks who were lynched, castrated and beaten for our cause. There are also those of us who were and still are “shellshocked” or who have what’s commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. They are the walking wounded, driven to crime, drug use, alcoholism, insanity, high blood pressure and various other diseases of the mind, body and spirit because the battle was--and is still--too much for them to handle.

I believe that “equality,” and not necessarily “acceptance,” is what most black Americans have been striving to achieve all along in this country. Unfortunately, many people tend to confuse these two terms.

It should really be irrelevant to blacks whether we’re ever fully accepted in America. Even if we’re not accepted in an emotional sense, we’re going to have to be accepted in a physical sense, and thus reckoned with in some manner. The Mississippi River, Mount Everest and the Pacific Ocean don’t need public “acceptance” to belong where they are. They’re just there, they’ve been there for quite some time, they’re not going anywhere and there’s nothing anyone will ever be able to do about it. Whether you’ve accepted them or not is really immaterial. God put them there for some reason unknown to any of us. So you can either come to terms with this fact or waste your time, energy and resources trying to fight it.

The same can be said of any population group within America--whether they be of European, African, Asian or Central or South American descent.

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