BEING AN AMERICAN: Straddling the Color Line

Written by Camille Jackson,

The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.

Frederick Douglas
"What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" speech, 1862

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War… the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict.

W.E.B. Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the grand- daughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said, "On the line!" The Reconstruction said, "Go!" I am off to a flying start, and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep.

Zora Neale Hurston
"How It Feels To Be Colored Me," 1928

Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X Speaks, 1963

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I Have A Dream" speech, 1963

I think we brought to the world, or the United States anyway, the whole idea of boycotting as a nonviolent tactic. I think we showed the world that nonviolence can work to make social change.

Dolores Huerta
Labor leader and activist, 2000

The white people, who are trying to make us over into their image, they want us to be what they call "assimilated," bringing the Indians into the mainstream and destroying our own way of life and our own cultural patterns. … We want freedom from the white man rather than to be integrated. We don’t want any part of the establishment, we want to be free to raise our children in our religion, in our ways, to be able to hunt and fish and live in peace. … The white man says, there is freedom and justice for all. We have had "freedom and justice," and that is why we have been almost exterminated. We shall not forget this.

Tecumseh Shawnee
Grand Council of American Indians, 1927

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.

James Baldwin
Notes of A Native Son, 1955

Until the chance for political participation is there, we who are poor will continue to attack the soft part of the American system — its economic structure. We will build power through boycotts, strikes, new union — whatever techniques we can develop. These attacks on the status quo will come, not because we hate, but because we know America can construct a humane society for all its citizens — and that if it does not, there will be chaos.

Cesar Chavez
Date Unknown

America is not like a blanket — one piece of unbroken cloth. America is more like a quilt — many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven together by a common thread.

Rev. Jesse Jackson
Democratic National Convention address, 1984

I realize now that the most important thing that is an American Dream — in looking at people living in other countries, in looking at the life my sisters had not growing up in this country — is the American freedom to create your own identity. I think that’s uniquely American. In no other country do you have that opportunity. It’s not to say that everything will happen fairly and the way that you want. But I think that this is a country where that opportunity — to be as wild as you want, as generous as you want, as crazy as you want, as artistic as you want, that all of that, the whole range — exists.

Amy Tan
Academy of Achievement interview, 1996

This essay originally appeared on, the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.