There are few questions that are more vexing and pertinent to the American people today than how to define black patriotism, especially in the era of Donald Trump — as people of color in this country can attest to better than anyone else. However, you don’t ignore a question just because it’s difficult to embrace. Defining black patriotism has become one of the greatest issues of the contemporary era, defined by the NFL protest against police brutality and the civil activism we’re seeing around the United States every day.

Here's how we can examine the question of black patriotism in a historical context, and how Americans from all backgrounds can grapple with their complicated and contradictory past.

The only way anyone can come to gain a comprehensive understanding of politics and racial dilemmas in today’s day and age is by examining the past, which is inundated with historical lessons derived from the wise teachings of great men and women. Defining black patriotism isn’t easy today, but that’s not particularly new; as a matter of fact, questions surrounding how people of color can love their country and improve it has vexed the American people since the early days of the republic.

Take, for example, the wise words of Frederick Douglass, one of the greatest black orators and writers of all time. Appearing before a gathering of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, who had invited him with hopes that he’d deliver swelling oration packed with pride for the still-youthful United States, Douglass spoke about the Fourth of July. Rather than speaking about how amazing the United States was, and noting how much of an icon of freedom the Fourth of July had already become, he instead posed an  important question to the audience: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”

Douglass struck at the heart of a question that was already gnawing at the consciences of many people of color throughout the United States. How is it possible to love and labor for a country that’s despised you — that’s literally enslaved your people and denied them the very basic principles and rights it was founded upon? This wasn’t an easy question to answer then, and answers still aren’t forthcoming to this day.

Later thinkers would arrive and help us answer it in part, however, and we can rely on their example, too, when it comes to struggling to define black patriotism. James Baldwin wrote that he loved America more than any other country in the world, and that “exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This statement captures the heart of defining black patriotism and helps us realize that while it’s easy to detest the more atrocious aspects of American history, it’s also necessary to love one’s country if you’re ever to meaningfully live, and more importantly, improve things in it.

To put it simply, black patriotism in the United States can best be defined as being exemplified in the form of proud protests. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Colin Kaepernick, the greatest black Americans in this country’s history have demonstrated their patriotism not by maliciously maligning the U.S. at all turns, but instead informing others about its peculiar past and arduously working to forge a better, more equal future. The greatest black patriots in this country have never shunned an opportunity to criticize America’s racial inequalities, which must be maligned and discussed if they’re to be overcome but also never allowed themselves to believe that their nation had become irredeemable.

Indeed, perhaps the defining facet of black patriotism is a ceaseless hope for the future. A constant understanding that while things may be bad, they’re progressively getting better, thanks to the concerted efforts of honest Americans who aren’t afraid to stand up for their rights and use the internet (with the help of Google analytics and GDPR) to spread the message. The marchers at Selma didn’t see the ugliness in America and turn their backs on it – they embraced the fight against it, championing their own vision of America until it slowly, but surely, became the norm. In short, protesting is fundamentally patriotic, and at the heart of black patriotism in this country.  

This doesn’t change the fact that it can be hard to love America and its dizzying history, whether you’re a person of color or not. It does drive home the point that change is possible, however, and that one must embrace certain aspects of American life (like the right to protest) if they’re ever to make that life better for people of color. Defining black patriotism isn’t any easier today than it was in 1776, nor in 1856, nor in the 1960s. That doesn’t mean black Americans and their counterparts throughout the country can give up hope, however, nor does it mean we should ever believe that people of color can’t love their country and fight to make it a better place.