The relationship between the black man and America is a complicated one. The first “American” casualty in the Revolutionary War was a black man named Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave who escaped the oppressive hand of his master to make a discrete but productive life for himself in Boston.
Attucks was believed to be the child of an African slave named Prince Yonger and a Natick Indian named Nancy Attucks. As an adult, Attucks reportedly stood about 6’2. He was described in trial transcripts by future president John Adams as a “stout mulatto fellow, whose very look was enough to terrify any person.” It is said that Attucks, a capable seaman, was furious with British Soldiers taking jobs from locals and feared being forced to serve in the British Royal Navy. While drinking in a tavern, Attucks and several others lashed out at a British sailor who came in looking for part-time work. Emotions became heated and a mob coalesced. The mob walked to King Street with sticks in hand looking for confrontation. They began throwing snowballs and other objects at British soldiers and after the ensuing eruption of violence five colonists—including Attucks—lay dead.
During a subsequent trail, John Adams defended the British soldiers and argued that Attucks had attacked first by using one hand to grab the bayonet of a soldier’s rifle while knocking him down with the other hand. At some point the soldier regained control of his firearm and shot Attucks, killing him. According to trial transcripts Adams stated, “This was the behavior of Attucks, whose mad behavior, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed”.
Attucks may have given little thought to American Independence. He was likely just trying to protect his livelihood and enraged by the prospect of re-enslavement, whether by colonial slave owners or the Royal British Navy. In his time, Attucks was treated by some as a brawling miscreant—what we might call a “thug” today. But history has gradually revised its view of Attucks, taking into account that he was fighting against a lifetime of systematic and brutal oppression.
The yoke of bondage, whether applied by an individual or under the foot of a government, will lead to explosive confrontation today just as much as it did in Attucks’ time.
Since 1770, black men have fought in every war this nation has ever had. I would even argue that black men exemplify patriotism in a deeper and truer way than those of other races. Why would I say such a thing? Since 1770 when white American soldiers went to war, they fought to protect a way of life that prioritized their life, liberty, and happiness over that of other Americans. When black men went to war, we fought to protect a country that didn’t even pretend to consider us equals. We fought, bled, and died to protect rights that were withheld from us. And yet we still fought.
I hate America!
Throughout history, many black veterans believed they would achieve respect and freedom in America after serving in wars—only to find the same bigotry waiting for them at home. I’ve often wondered why so many black men have served in the military. The stories I have been told by black military veterans from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are painful and discouraging. There may be few atheists in foxholes, but there are certainly a lot of racists.
I hate America!
If history has come to respect Attucks for participating in a violent brawl, why can’t we respect the peaceful act of kneeling for the national anthem? America proudly sends stout black men to fight in wars, but heaven forbid black men kneel under a flag.
I hate America!
Despite centuries of bigotry, black men have never stopped giving this nation our blood, sweat, and tears. We’ve fought in America’s wars, built successful towns, businesses, and schools, and invented a hugely disproportionate amount of this nation’s arts, music, and culture. Despite our contributions we have faced black codes, Jim Crow, riots, and endless resentment. During the 1921 Tulsa massacre, the U.S. military literally bombed black neighborhoods with aircraft paid for, in part, by taxes on black Americans. We have endured redlining, “separate-but-equal,” and racist defunding of civil services in black neighborhoods. The list goes on and on, and on. And it is still growing longer today.
I hate America!
I hate that black men have been mistreated by the nation we have died to preserve. I hate that black men kill other black men. I hate that police abuse black men. I hate that black boys grow up in fatherless homes. I hate there are no jobs, inadequate educational facilities, and terrible environmental conditions in black communities. I hate how much of non-black America seems so dismissive of our experience. I hate being followed while shopping. I’m afraid when walking alone behind a white woman in a parking lot or hallway and I never get in an elevator alone with one. I fear that my sons will one day “fit the description.” I am terrified of the school to prison pipeline. I am afraid to leave a store without a store-issued shopping bag.
I hate America.
I miss my time in the military and am grateful for the lifelong friends I made there. I love the pastor at my church. I miss arguing political issues with opponents who have become more like friends even though they’re wrong (haha). I appreciate the people who have supported me because of the content of my character. I’m grateful for the opportunities given to me because someone chose to be kind. I am grateful for God’s grace and forgiveness. I love watching people peacefully protest issues that impact people other than themselves. I love seeing people giving food and clothing to those in need. I love watching communities come to the aid of their neighbors.
I love the United States of America!
There are those who are celebrating this nation being torn apart. But this is not the time to only be American. We need to be United. I think of the moment that Attucks took hold of the British soldier’s bayonet. I imagine for that brief moment before the rounds burst from the barrel of that rifle, he was free. As free as the white men with whom he shares a grave. He died for freedom. It was white freedom, but it was still freedom and Attucks still fought and died for it. He was the first to do so, but not the last.
I am hurt by America.
I don’t want to sound like the “angry black man” but I’m mad as hell. I’m hurt and I’m afraid. I don’t understand why every American patriot isn’t. Like Thomas Jefferson, I’m afraid that the stain on the United States of America will tear it apart. Shall we overcome?
I hope so.
Terre Gales is an Air Force veteran and former police police officer in Arizona. He has worked at the Municipality of Anchorage and State of Alaska. He ran for the Anchorage Assembly in 2016 and was the chair for the group Dunleavy for Alaska in 2018.