For my “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” course this semester, I’m teaching Claude McKay’s Romance in Marseille, a book that builds upon the action in his 1929 novel Banjo: A Story Without a Plot. I plan to teach Banjo in my study travel class, where we will travel to Marseille and Nice. Because of this, I chose to read Banjo recently in preparation for Romance in Marseille and for the study travel trip. As I read Banjo, I became interested in the theme of patriotism that runs throughout the novel, specifically Ray’s comments on patriotism and his examination of the world he inhabits. Ray appears in McKay’s first novel, Home to Harlem (1928), and he is McKay’s alter ego within both novels.

Born in Haiti and spending time in the United States, Ray “enjoyed his role of a wandering black without patriot or family ties” as he contemplates the pitfalls of unquestioned patriotism and dedication to a nation state. The “civilized” world taught him about patriotism, one’s unquestioning fidelity to a nation that does not necessarily have their best interests in mind. He enjoyed seeing “Italians against French, French against Anglo-Saxons, English against Germans,” and others. Nation trumped humanity for these individuals, and it was “Europe who taught him to be patriotic” because they told him “he was an American.”

For Ray, patriotism “was a poisonous seed that had, of course, been planted” deep down inside of him as a child, but it died out since it didn’t have any soil to “nourish it.” Patriotism appeared “most unnatural” to Ray because it represented swath of humans “bartering, competing, exploiting. lying, cheating, battling, suppressing, and killing among themselves” as they worked hard to maintain positions of superiority above “weaker peoples.” Rather, Ray thought about life as love of individuals, not nations, as love of things, not nations, as love of places, not nations.

Instead of focusing outward, “A patriot,” according to Ray, “loves not his nation, but the spiritual meannnesses of his life of which he has created a frontier wall to hide the beauty of other horizons.” It becomes barrier to us, causing us to isolate ourselves from others, even if we do travel. It epitomizes what Jamaica Kincaid called the “ugly tourist,” those who go somewhere and expect individuals to treat them like royalty because of their nationality. It makes us look upon others as inferior.

On a recent episode of Travel With Rick Steves, Steves spoked with Patricia Schultz, author of Why We Travel: One Hundred Reasons to See the World. During their discussion, they spoke about some of their memories of traveling but they also talked about some of their favorite places to visit. Each of them mentioned that one of the most memorable places they visited was Iran, and they each said that the people they met in Iran were some of the friendliest and most inviting people that they have encountered on their trips. Instead of buying into the media rhetoric and political rhetoric pitting the United States against Iran, Steves and Schultz saw, as ran mentions, individuals, not nationalities. Borders, while existing, did not matter. The arbitrary lines drawn on parchment sat on parchment, not in the interactions they had with others.

I am not saying that one should not have a love or admiration for a nation. I am saying that one should not have an unquestioning patriotism that says, “No matter what, my country is always better. It can do no wrong.” That form of patriotism, patriotism above everything else, builds walls and causes us to lock ourselves away from new experiences and horizons. Instead of this, we need to have what Ben Railton calls critical patriotism which he defines as a patriotism that has “an embrace of the nation’s ideals that at the same time highlights all the ways we’ve fallen short of them, with a goal of moving us closer to that as-yet-unrealized, best version of ourselves and our community.”

Critical patriotism has existed in the United States since its inception. Take one look at Frederick Douglass’ What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? or anything by Martin Luther King, Jr. to see its presence. James Baldwin best epitomizes critical patriotism when he writes, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” For all of the oppression that the United States heaped upon Baldwin, he proclaimed, in 1955, he loved the nation “more than any other country in the world”; however, that country did not love him. So, was Baldwin supposed to give his unquestioning loyalty to a nation that oppressed him? Or, should he question and criticize it in order to make it live up to the ideals it has espoused for over two centuries.

Douglass, in 1852, did something similar in What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? He highlights the failures of the young United States throughout the speech, but he also praises the United States for the ideals it espouses. This is what patriotism should be. Not an unwavering support of a nation and its policies but a critical questioning of a nation and a striving for the nation to adhere to the democratic ideals that it has espoused and purported to support throughout its existence. When we do this we work to create the “best version of ourselves and our community.” We work for the betterment of all, and we tear down the walls that hinder us from seeing and experiencing the horizon outside our own front doors.

This makes us tolerant and open. Speaking with his companions later in the novel, Ray tells them that sailors should be the most tolerent people in the world because their traveling allows them to “learn a whole lot of things.” However, one’s unbridled patriotism or belief in one’s racial superiority hinders this because while that person may see “everything,” the person “learns nothing.” The “giants and pygmies of belief,” as Lillian Smith calls them, follow the person wherever they go, bringing the wall with alongside them.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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