“I, Too, Sing America”: Finding Peace with being Black and American

by Charday Ward

As my neighborhood fills with the smell of BBQ cooking on the grill, the loud playing sounds of classic soul music, and fireworks set off at dusk, I can’t help but ask myself “What are exactly are we celebrating?” When the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, freedom for Black people in the Thirteen Colonies was a dream that would not be realized until almost 100 years later. I’ve struggled with the notion of celebrating freedom in a land that enslaved and denied Black Americans basic rights for hundreds of years.

I wondered where I fit it in. I had come to the conclusion that when Thomas Jefferson wrote the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he was not talking about Black people. He could not have been talking about Black people because he owned slaves. So I felt left out of the unalienable right to freedom for all men and understood that the reason why I enjoy civil rights and certain liberties today is because of freedom fighters who worked very hard to make America stay true to its words about equality and human rights.

I was very pessimistic about my Americaness and conflicted about what it meant to be a Black American. Then a study abroad trip to Brazil helped me find peace with my homeland. Because I had never traveled outside of North America, I had not been faced with identifying myself as American in the company of non-Americans. Brazil is a melting pot of Black, White, Native American and Asian people, and the city of Rio de Janeiro is so multi-ethnic that I blended right in. It was only when people heard my group speaking English did they ask what country we were from. “America,” I would answer, and then I suddenly realized that I had said a mouthful with one word. There was a unique experience, economic class, culture and set of values that I had related to these natives by using this one word to describe myself. I was forced to identify with a nation of people, and I then understood how much of America was me and I America.

I was filled with an indescribable sense of pride. Not because I was American but because I was a Black American. I met many Afro-Brazilians and also Black people from France and other European countries. What we had in common was that we were all members of the African Diaspora;  I, however, represented a Black experience unique to America.

In our conversations, I suddenly became cognizant of the things that defined my experience of being a Black American. Everything from music, dance, hairstyles and dress, to historical events, leaders and movements flooded my mind. I thought of my neighborhood, my family, my church, the language we speak and how we interact with one another. And I was proud, proud to be an American. I was proud of my history, my culture, my people and my unique experience.
In Salvador, Bahia, Brazil I toured cathedrals hundreds of years old which were ornately embellished in gold by African slaves. I remembered that America, too, was built into a great and prosperous country by both African slaves and free Black people. I realized that like Langston Hughes so eloquently wrote, “I , too, am America.” I am America because I give it flavor. I am America because my ancestors labored in building the country into what it is today.

I am America because we, Black Americans, weave colorful threads of culture, history , and experiences into this multi-colored, multi-cultured tapestry that we call “The Land of the Free, and Home of the Brave.”

Charday Ward is a freelance writer, playwright, teacher and founder and director of a mentoring organization in Detroit, Michigan. Follow her blog LadyDaysLetters.com , and twitter @ladydaysletters

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