February 24, 2021

How do we reconcile our gratitude for a country that seems bent on oppressing us?

Zinelle October ACS Executive Vice President


This blog is part of a Black History Month series celebrating the contributions and achievements of African Americans.

As I reflect on Black History Month this year, I have so many conflicting thoughts and memories. As a young child in Brooklyn and Queens, NY, I had a small American flag that I was so proud of and which my family knew not to touch. I protected it with all the (limited) power and might that I had. Since childhood, I have always thought of the United States as an amazing country. After all, I saw first-hand how good a country it was to my family and me. My parents sacrificed plenty to make it to this country from Guyana. Neither of them had a high school education, but they came to the United States to ensure all their future children would have endless opportunities. And fortunately, we did and continue to have such opportunities.

I hold this gratitude for and faith in my country while at the same time confronting, every day, the defining impact of slavery and racism on my country and its laws.  Experiencing the past four years, in particular, with a racist, sexist president, working with all his enablers to use the power of government to oppress, disenfranchise, and divide, and seeing him garner 74 million votes in the 2020 election, has been heavy and difficult. I’ve been struggling to explain to my mom how and why these past four years, including the January 6th home-grown insurrection on our nation’s capital, have been possible in the country in which she sought and received refuge. How do we reconcile our gratitude for a country that seems bent on oppressing us?

I’ve recently re-read The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. In the letter to his nephew, Baldwin writes a line that resonates with me: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” This is the hard truth that is no less true today than when Baldwin wrote it. Our country's present day is rooted in our country's history of slavery, racism, and oppression. We do not remedy the harm of that history by ignoring it or downplaying its relevance to our present day. We can and we must be able to both celebrate the achievements and aspirations of this country while also doing the hard work of reckoning with and remedying its legacy of racism.

Bryan Stevenson has been speaking about truth-telling for some time. I agree that to reconcile with the impact of racism today, we must tell the truth about its defining role in our country's yesterday. It’s time for all of us to play a role in getting to the heart of our country’s origins. ACS will begin doing just that in this, our 20th anniversary year. ACS’s principal theme this year is reckoning with our country’s deep historical roots and modern manifestation in racism, including our founding document, the Constitution. Talking truth to power includes addressing how our Constitution, in its various incarnations, has been used to enshrine, legitimize, and perpetuate racism. It is our hope that this is just the beginning to truth-telling. It will be a long, difficult and likely painful journey, but it’s necessary if we hope to ever have a shot at reconciliation.

I call on our entire network to join us for this critical journey ahead. Undertaking this necessary and overdue work with the fantastic ACS network makes me proud to hold our country’s flag as we work toward better days and a more inclusive democracy. Join us on March 2 at 4 p.m. ET for our kickoff event, “Reckoning with the Constitution.” RSVP here.

Constitutional Interpretation, Equality and Liberty