But you have to first experience being American before you can truly renounce it, and blacks know they are still not there. When pundits and cultural observers talk casually about the heartland or the middle class or the swing vote, about all those modest Americans who nonetheless matter a great deal to politicians and pollsters, we know they are not talking about us (our appellations are still working class, poor, urban, disenfranchised and, most popular, African-American). We can be the biggest consumers and purveyors of bling-bling all we want — outdo the capitalists at their own game — but P. Diddy’s luxury SUV is not the same as a soccer mom’s. We do not meanthe same things.
And so, to fill this eternal gap, we stubbornly continue to make patriots of ourselves, on our own terms. In the great American tradition of self-invention, we hoist the flag, pledge to it, shoot off fireworks, even defend this country as xenophobically as the next white guy. I read several months ago about one of the many speeches the Reverend Al Sharpton gave during his quixotic bid for the presidency. In this speech, Sharpton described his occasional puzzlement over how the recently departed Ray Charles could sing “America the Beautiful” so convincingly, when in Sharpton’s mind there was precious little for a black man to sing about. Then it hit him: Charles was singing about an America that he literally could not see, but could imagine. It was not an America that he knew, but one that he hopedto know. Most of us are still priming ourselves, from the hairdo on down, for that introduction.