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Red, white, blue and black African-Americans helped build this nation and defend it. But for years, their patriotism has been difficult to define. Will pride in this nation surge among them with the election of a black president?

Black Americans don't usually descend on Washington, D.C., waving the Stars and Stripes.

Instead, since the dawn of the Civil Rights Era and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, they have gathered in the heart of the nation's capital to demand the justice and equality promised by the Founding Fathers.

That changed in January. Hundreds of thousands of black men and women returned to the Mall in D.C. with flags in hand. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with many white Americans and proclaimed how proud they were to be citizens of this nation.

It was a rare sight.

No American likes to be labeled "unpatriotic." Yet for decades, the concept of patriotism among African-Americans has been difficult to define -- one clouded by a legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination.

"It was unusual to see all those African-Americans with their flags," said Regina Hardy, 48, one of many local blacks who journeyed to Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day. "Many would not have pulled out a flag before, but we feel the country's changing."

As in any community, feelings of patriotism are wide ranging among African-Americans. Yet many would agree that their feelings for the United States are complicated.

The tide of government criticism that flows steadily from the black community gets some backlash. A pet peeve for blacks is to be on the receiving end of the question: If you hate this country so much, why don't you just go back to Africa?

"I believe in this country, and I want this country to live up to the ideals of this country," said Frank Mesiah, president of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP. "I'm an American. Don't compare me with someone in Africa. Compare me with someone here in this country."

Even President Obama and the first lady were not immune to questions about loyalty to country during Obama's run for office.

Fiery comments by the president's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, Obama's initial refusal to wear a flag pin on his lapel and Michelle Obama's comment about being really proud of her country "for the first time" all raised a storm of criticism.

Obama felt compelled in June to respond with a speech devoted to his understanding of patriotism.

"It is worth considering the meaning of patriotism," he said, "because the question of who is -- or is not -- a patriot all too often poisons our political debates in ways that divide us rather than bringing us together."

>History of commitment

Local black leaders, military veterans and residents point to black history as evidence of their long commitment to this country. From the days of slavery to present times, they said, African-Americans helped build this nation and defend it.

"African-Americans were the first to die in the Revolutionary War," Mesiah said, "and we've been involved in the military in every single war this country has had."

Lillian S. Williams, an associate professor of African-American history at the University at Buffalo, said blacks in the military faced every imaginable form of discrimination.

"Nevertheless, they fought," she said. "African-Americans have always hoped the United States could be more than it really was, that it could realize its ideals, and they fought for it."

The yearning for black Americans to be accepted by their country was epitomized by poet Langston Hughes, who wrote on poetic themes like, "I, too, sing America."

Though more than 80 years have passed since then, those words are still powerful because issues of discrimination, racism and prejudice persist, said many of the dozen people interviewed for this story.

Buffalo resident Dewitt Lee, 30, said his patriotism has been rooted exclusively in the triumphs of trailblazing African-Americans who pushed for civil rights and equality.

"I understand what we've done to build this country as black Americans," said Lee, promotions director at WUFO radio, which organized a bus trip to the inauguration. "I value the lives that came before me and the sacrifices that were made to make this country what it is. It would be wrong for me to not recognize what they've done to pave the way."

Some black Americans express even stronger feelings.

War veteran Frank Gaines, 78, came of age at the height of legalized segregation. The pervasive discrimination forced a young Gaines to leave North Carolina for Western New York 60 years ago.

But his love for this country has never waned. He proudly served in the Army during the Korean War.

"I'm an American, and I'm glad to be one," the Buffalo retiree said.

Gaines said he's moved beyond the blatant racism he's endured in his lifetime.

"I can't live in the past," he said. "I have to forgive, and I've done that."

Not all blacks have.

>Struggling to make it

African-American feelings for the nation vary from person to person and are often influenced by matters of age and class.

"If you are the average African-American living in the inner city -- they're concerned about, 'Does the bus run to the new job I've got in the suburbs, and will my kids' teacher be certified in math because the state says I've got to pass it?' " said the Rev. Darius Pridgen, who is pastor to a largely black, East Side congregation of 4,000 members.

"It's not that African-Americans don't feel patriotic; it's that they've got so many other concerns just trying to make it in America."

Some question how it's possible to love a country that, in many instances, hasn't loved them back. While blacks have made great strides in this country, many bristle at the notion that it's time they got over the past and embraced this country's greatness.

"If anyone thinks that you can simply get over the memories of your great-grandmother not having the opportunity to read, or your great-great-grandmother being enslaved," said Pridgen, 44, "You should just 'get over it' because someone is elected, or because there are certain opportunities? They are sadly mistaken. It takes time for any great hurt to be healed."

Even African-Americans who consider themselves very patriotic may not necessarily embrace all the visual trappings of red, white and blue.

"Those people who have been staunch flag wavers are associated with staunch opponents of black liberation," said UB professor Williams.

History has given many African-Americans reasons to be suspicious about such outward demonstrations of national pride, dating back to citizens groups fostering black hate like the Ku Klux Klan, Mesiah said.

"When blacks were given the opportunity to be patriotic, they were patriotic," said Mesiah, 80. "But they didn't go around waving the flag. The flag, for some folks, was a shroud . . . When a bunch of people come at you waving the flag, and they snatch you out of your house and hang you, then you don't get into flag waving."

So what is black patriotism?

>Change for the better

For many, hope. It's a belief this country can continue to change for the better because a unique mechanism for change exists in this country, said those interviewed.

"America has some flaws," Pridgen said. "However, there is not another country that I could be shipped off to, that I would want to go to. Even though it has it flaws, it has a process where involved people can change the flaws, or repair those flaws."

Obama, many said, is the best example. They noted that in no other country has a black man been elected to lead a nation in which the majority of its citizens aren't also black.

"My love for America has grown to include America as a whole, because this is the first time, because the majority of the country voted for Obama," Lee said. "They looked past the things on the surface and considered what really counts, and that's the content of a man's character."

Hardy said patriotism was a "back burner" issue for her until Obama's election. Until then, she focused on racial inequities, embittered over job promotions she missed because of her color.

Inauguration Day was transforming for her.

She was moved to tears when she spotted a boy on the Mall covered in a blanket, with just a hand poking out, clutching an American flag.

"It really touched me to see a such a young African-American holding on to the flag like that, showing so much patriotism," she said. "I had never seen anything like it before. I knew there was hope for the younger generation, for them to be seen as equals and for them to realize their dreams in America."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com and esapong@buffnews.com

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