"I pledge my loyalty and allegiance, without mental reservation or evasions, to America. I shall through my writing seek to rally the Negro people to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Administration in a solid national front to wage war until victory is won." --Richard Wright (December 16, 1941)
On the morning of September 11, I was driving down R Street in Washington on my way to a local foundation where I was working as a writer when I saw a huge cloud of smoke off in the distance. I had already heard that two hijacked planes had crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. When I saw the huge cloud of smoke rising into the sky, I kind of figured it wasn't someone's house on fire. No more than a minute later, the radio reported that a plane had hit the Pentagon. I immediately pulled over and went inside the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, where I once worked. Everyone there was distraught. Some people began crying. Others were speechless. Then the newscaster announced that the towers had collapsed with possibly thousands of people trapped inside. I told my former co-workers I was leaving.
"Where are you headed?"
"The racetrack," I answered.
My answer was knee-jerk but honest. I wasn't at all surprised at what happened that day because I have always suspected that there are people and nations and factions that do not like America. Oftentimes, Black America does not like America, but, for the most part, many of us remain quiet. We go along for the ride because it is what we are accustomed to doing. Our interests are tied to America. And if you want to know the most poignant truth of all: We really have no choice in the matter. Where are we to go? We are, though some of us forget sometimes, American, perhaps more so than anyone else.
But that is, of course, part of why I was headed to the racetrack. I wanted to pretend that the bombing hadn't happened. I also knew that all of us--every black American--would be called upon (like every other American) from that day forth until we were instructed otherwise, to stand by our man--Uncle Sam. Support the war unconditionally. One shouldn't even question the approach to solving the problem (as if there is only one way to fight this battle). Any other conduct during the war would be deemed un-American.
For black Americans, it has always been that way, no matter our position in society. We would be asked to do what we had always done without any promise of future benefit: to prove our unconditional love and loyalty for America. Drop any grievances or problems we have with our American condition for the time being, or maybe for a generation or so. I didn't want to deal with the bombings, and I definitely didn't want to deal with the culture of violence that the bombings had spawned.
I preferred simply to go look at the horses.
Days after the bombing, with all of those thoughts of my American self still bearing down on me, I read Richard Wright's statement on World War II that appears above. I found it in Michel Fabre's celebrated biography of Wright, The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright (University of Illinois, 1993). I had been in search of statements by authors, black authors in particular, following Pearl Harbor. I wanted to know what they had to say as that attack became part of us. This was war, and that was war back in 1941, and I knew they found themselves in a difficult spot. Before that war, Roosevelt had expressed some interest in being a friend of Black America, but he hadn't really gone that far. Most people even forget that Black America had planned a March on Washington in 1941 that was canceled at the last minute. The argument by black Americans that fighting against tyranny will make democracy for blacks more possible in America was strong even before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor; afterwards, it was overwhelming.
Before the September 11 attack, Black America was even more frustrated. The election and subsequent decision by the Supreme Court that propelled George W. Bush into office still burned in the souls of many black folks. In fact, I can't remember a day that went by in the last year that at least one of my black American friends or acquaintances didn't bring up the vote count irregularities among blacks in Florida and how they couldn't wait to vote Bush out of office in 2004.
Even more painfully, our issues, the issues that at least were on the table during the Clinton years (despite his failure to address them), weren't even being discussed anymore. The country was talking tax cuts; we were asking about job cuts. The country was talking education reform; we were asking about just getting an education for our children. Then there were the bigger fish that Clinton turned and ran from for eight years: reparations, racial profiling, police brutality, reforming "drug war" sentencing guidelines, black men disproportionately going to jail.
But when those planes plunged into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on that blue, blue morning of September 11, 2001, not only was the black agenda taken off the table for the foreseeable future, the table itself was taken down.
That is why Richard Wright's statement struck a chord in me. I finally began to think clearly for the first time about the September 11 bombing. I began to put the attack into some sort of context without being "upset" or "angry" or full of guilt about my initial reaction of wanting to go to the racetrack. I finally knew where I was at that moment, right after I read that quote. I was where the average black American always seems to be in America--in that tragic Duboisian state of double consciousness.
What did the average African American say about the attack and what we should do? This is what I was hearing:
It was an awful thing.
Kill the bastards.
Kill them all.
Profile them Arabs.
Deport them all.
(Note: It was especially vexing to hear black people come on the radio following the bombing and basically call for racial profiling of Arab Americans and deportation. I assure you, this view was rampant. On one radio program based in Washington, D.C., caller after caller, black Americans, stated that "profiling" of Arab Americans was, in fact, needed and had to be done for the good of the nation.)
But that is just one side of the black American experience. Here is the other that I began to hear:
Don't we bomb people all the time?
And look how they treated us for so long.
Not to mention the same old bullshit we still got to put up with in daily life.
We are arguing over an apology for slavery.
How can we forget any of it?
We the ones who are going to be over there fighting, too.
And after this war, what then? The same?
Two peoples always, it seems.
I could not get it out of my head that Wright had felt a need to make a statement in support of World War II. For one thing, he was a pacifist. And prior to December 7, 1941, he was badgering America about the need for social justice and equality for the Negro in society. He was against any involvement in the war; he was more interested in addressing America's racial policies. Months before the war, on June 6, 1941, at a League of American Writers council meeting, Wright delivered a speech entitled "Not My People's War" that basically stated World War II was not a war black people should participate in because of how they are treated in society. Even after America's entry into that war, Wright remained focused on the improvement of conditions for America's black citizens.
Though he eventually volunteered to contribute to the war effort through writing, Wright's ambivalence was obvious. He supported the war for essentially the same naive reasons Frederick Douglass asked black people to fight with the Union in the Civil War: It was a chance for freedom and democracy. How could they continue to hold us down if we fought beside them against the true oppressors?
But though I was sure something drastic had to be done against terrorism, I couldn't support America's call for war against Afghanistan. I was against terrorism and violence, for sure, with every bone in my body. I abhorred the actions of the suicide bombers, which were so sick and so terribly destructive. Yet, I was sure that bombing a country that is hopelessly stuck in the medieval age would not solve anything. I was sure that as America began dropping bombs, we would become even more unsafe. I was more concerned about civil defense than revenge. I also could not get all that history out of my head about America and its black American people.
But still I wondered: Why wasn't I deeply depressed? This was a tragedy of epic proportions. The loss of human life was unfathomable. We were all attacked that day, too. Black America as well. Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa (holy war decree) years ago, and he said all Americans should be killed. Not white Americans, but all Americans. That meant me and my wife and my daughter and the rest of my family and Americans of every race and ethnicity.
This wasn't the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and '80, when the captors, in a clever show of political solidarity, released the black American hostages from the U.S. Embassy. Whoever was responsible for the crashes of September 11 didn't give a damn who you were as a person; this was an attack on America. If the bombers of September 11, 2001, were acting upon bin Laden's fatwa, or whoever's order, black America was also a target.
A very good family friend, a schoolteacher, Lizzie Jones, a black American woman who was like a second mother to me, lost one of her best friends in one of the suicide crashes. Her friend was a schoolteacher. They had known each other for more than thirty years and had talked right before the bombing. Her friend was taking a student on a study trip sponsored by National Geographic. She told Ms. Jones she would be back on Saturday, and that she would tell her all about it. Her friend did not come back. She is gone. I saw Ms. Jones on television on the news speaking to her lost friend in spiritual phrases. I felt nauseous.
I am afraid for my daughter. She does not need to live in a world that is full of violence, death, and chaos. My sincere hope is that all of us now understand the real horror of mass violence of this magnitude. I know I do. No way should anyone suffer as we did on September 11, 2001. The frantic phone calls looking for friends and family members, the e-mails seeking out answers, the devastation, the catastrophic grief.
Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman refers to America now as "Unique No More." Dorfman says this is so because America has finally experienced what "so many other human beings" in "faraway zones, have suffered." Yes, we have felt it.
I am pretty sure that Richard Wright anguished over writing all the other words he wrote supporting entry into World War II. But he felt America in 1941 was still his country. America is my country, too, but it is much more complex than that. I don't mean just the place where I was born, but a place that is unequivocally my land and the land of my people without the enormous contradictions that create a strange dialogue, which can be summed up like this:
"But we ended slavery."
"But you allowed it to be legal for hundreds of years."
"We conquered Jim Crow and segregation."
"But it was legal for most of the twentieth century, and we had to almost burn the country down to get you to do it."
Today, I marvel at my friends who talk of their families coming to America from India or Nicaragua or my law school classmates who speak about their grandfather or grandmother's journey to America from Italy or Ireland or Greece in search of a better life in America. It is a magical story I don't have. That's why black Americans can never be whole in America, no matter how hard we try. How can we? We don't even have a past that can be defined, and the part that we know, the story that is passed to us regarding our country's relationship to us, is a complete tragedy. America is my country, yet my country, it seems, has never wanted me.
They were blowing their car horn. They were drunk. I was in Georgetown, and several young, white youths were hanging out of the windows of the car with a sign that read: "Honk, If You Love America." It was cute in a way to see such brash patriotism. Drivers began honking in response to the sign. This was September 16, and everyone was still in immense pain. The young drunks were trying to make themselves feel better and everyone else at the same time. I didn't honk my horn. I was in the Georgetown traffic jam, frozen and unable to do anything. I began looking around and realized that no one really would notice because so many cars were honking. Most of the people I saw honking their horns were white. I didn't see any black people around. I didn't honk. It was a disturbing moment for me because I wasn't standing by my man in one of his toughest times. I realized again (as I have been reminded many times since) that though I was and am an American, I didn't have what most Americans feel--that unique sense of belonging. The tragedy was a part of me but it was mostly about the victims, the injured, the dead. I knew I wasn't alone, either.
On the radio in the days after the bombing, I heard many black Americans state that they felt bad for the victims, they felt violated, and they felt that America had to do something, but then some would add at the end of their comments statements about not feeling that deep sense of patriotism that most Americans feel. The kind of emotion that pushes you to put your hand over your heart, take your hat off when the National Anthem is played. The "God Bless America" brand of patriotism. They were Americans, but not quite as American as white Americans. They cried for the victims but not necessarily for America.
In the days following the bombing, I was asked several times with strange looks: "Where is your flag?" I told some people I didn't have a flag. I told others that I simply could not lie to myself. It never dawned on me that I should fly a flag. I felt terrible for the victims. Awful. If the flag was for the victims, it should be flown, but I didn't fly a flag because I remembered the victims in other ways. For me, simply to resign myself to flying the flag was not enough. It was superficial, and it took the focus away from those who had died.
I spent much of my time in the days following the bombing riding through the city, looking at flags. I wanted to see who was flying them, and who wasn't. It would tell me something about America. I rode to upper Northwest first. This is the area of Washington where the affluent live, and I saw the American flag waving on nearly every street. On some streets you could tell that the neighbors probably had talked to each other because nearly every house had a flag out front. There was a pride there that was impressive. Cars had flags, too. It made the streets look like there was going to be a July 4 parade.
Then I rode to my old neighborhood, where I grew up. The families there are less affluent, but they are doing fairly well, at least most of them. They've always wanted to be American. Black Americans live there mostly, some middle class, some working class, but the neighborhood has only small pockets of despair and is usually quiet except on hot summer nights. There were American flags flying up here, too, but not as many as in upper Northwest. My mother, who still lives there, had a tiny flag on her front door. You could barely see it. She said someone gave it to her.
Finally, I rode through the most economically depressed areas of Washington: the hood--Northwest, below Howard University, but above downtown--streets where crack and heroin continued to be sold and used as the tragedy unfolded. Drunks were laid out in the gutter, children ran the streets late at night, addicts came up to my car trying to sell stolen items. There was hardly a flag in sight.
-- Poet-attorney Brian Gilmore is the author of two collections of poetry, including his latest, "jungle nights and soda fountain rags: poem for duke ellington" (Karibu Books, 2000).