As with most Americans, patriotism starts for me as a gut instinct, a loyalty and love for my country that’s rooted in my earliest memories. It’s not just the recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, the Thanksgiving pageants at school, or the fireworks on the Fourth of July, but how the American ideal wove its way throughout the lessons my family taught me.
One of those memories is sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders and watching the Apollo astronauts come ashore in Hawaii. People cheered and waved small flags, and my grandfather explained with pride and assurance how we Americans could accomplish anything we set our minds to do.
I lived overseas for a time as a child, and I remember listening to my mother reading me the first lines of the Declaration of Independence and explaining how its ideas applied to every American, black and white and brown alike. She told me that those words, and the words of the United States Constitution, protected us from the brutal injustices we witnessed other people suffering during those years abroad.
And I remember my grandfather’s funeral at Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii. As I listened to the rifles fire in salute and the long, solemn notes of taps, as I watched the honor guard fold the flag and tenderly present it to my grandmother, I thought about the country that my grandfather was so proud to serve — a country where we have the unparalleled freedom to pursue our dreams.
That is the true genius of America. A faith in simple dreams, an insistence on small miracles. We can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm. We can say and write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door. We can have an idea and start our own businesses without paying a bribe. In America, anything is possible.
For a young man of mixed race, without firm anchor in any community, without even a father’s steadying hand, the essential American ideal — that our destinies are not written before we are born, that in America we can travel as far as our energy and talents will take us — has defined my life. With a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, I know that stories like mine can happen only in the United States of America.
But each generation must understand that the blessings of freedom require our constant vigilance, and that true patriotism also means a willingness to sacrifice for our common good. For those who have fought on the battlefield under the Stars and Stripes — for the young veterans I meet at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or those like John McCain who endured physical torment while serving our nation — no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary.
Those who have signed up to fight for our country in distant lands inspire me, just as I am inspired by those fighting for a better America here at home by teaching in underserved schools, caring for the sick in understaffed hospitals, or promoting more sustainable energy policies in their communities.
In the end, it may be this quality that best describes patriotism in my mind — not just a love of America in the abstract, but a very particular love for, and faith in, one another as Americans. The greatness of our country — its victories in war, its enormous wealth, its scientific and cultural achievements — have resulted from the toil, drive, struggle, restlessness, humor, and quiet heroism of the American people. That is the liberty we defend—the liberty of each of us to follow our dreams. That is the equality we seek — not an equality of results but the chance of every single one of us to make it if we try.
That is the community we strive to build—one in which we recognize we share common hopes and dreams, one in which we continue to insist that there is nothing we cannot do when we put our minds to it, and one in which we see ourselves as part of a larger story, our own fates wrapped up in the fates of all who share allegiance to America’s singular creed.