I never saw my father wear a flag pin, but he was a patriot. He was more faithful to the United States of America than I would have been if my life had been as burdened by legally sanctioned racism.
He grew up in the Jim Crow South, where his opportunities were severely limited. He attended inferior schools and was taught to be deferential to whites. He endured vicious bigotry inside the newly integrated Army, where he served as a lieutenant, and out.
When he returned from Korea as a combat veteran, he bought a baby blue 1953 Chevrolet. In one ugly episode that he recounted, he stopped to buy gas at a small service station in rural Alabama, where he lived. The attendant, apparently outraged to see a black man in a brand-new car, said: "Nigger, if you want that car, you better get it the hell out of here." No gas.
Yet my father rarely showed anger or frustration over the social and institutional bigotry that easily could have cast a pall over his life. He went to college, got married and reared four children. He encouraged us to work hard, to worship God, to respect authority. Every now and then, I caught a glimpse of his frustrations, but little more. He didn't want his children to grow up embittered.
My father's brother-in-law, Steve, volunteered for the Army shortly before Pearl Harbor. He remembers following Gen. George S. Patton's men through Europe as a member of the all-black 575th Quartermaster Company. When the Red Cross came to the front with hot coffee and doughnuts, they served the white soldiers first. Then they served the black soldiers, if there was any coffee left. Black soldiers were kept away from certain English and French towns for fear they would "fraternize" with white women. But Steve endured all that with perspective - and good humor - intact.
In that respect, perhaps, my father and uncle differed greatly from Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose anger - indeed, bitterness - about his country's social and cultural history have clearly distorted his views. But they are all black men who have shown a deep love for their country, a love that has often been unrequited.
In last week's Democratic debate - a fusillade of mostly inane questions from two otherwise distinguished journalists - one of the least-enlightening exchanges rehashed the controversy over Pastor Wright's inflammatory remarks. In what was surely one of the evening's low points, George Stephanopoulos asked Mr. Obama: "Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?"
Exactly what are the metrics we should use here? A hundred points if you've never uttered a critical word about your nation's foreign or domestic policy? Only 50 points if you've ever expressed dismay over lingering racism? Deported immediately to Guantanamo if you've had the gall to suggest there may be a connection between American foreign policy and the terrorist atrocity of 9/11?
It's exasperating when Republicans decide to smear a triple-amputee such as former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia as unpatriotic - as Saxby Chambliss did in defeating him in 2002. It's deeply troubling when mainstream journalists decide it is appropriate to ask a presidential candidate to weigh his former pastor's loyalty, an unfortunate echo of the Joseph McCarthy era. There are many things that might correctly be said about some of Pastor Wright's views - paranoid, offensive and patently wrong - but unpatriotic? By whose definition?
For the record, Pastor Wright volunteered for the Marine Corps in 1962, inspired by John F. Kennedy's inaugural challenge, "Ask not what your country can do for you," according to a Chicago Tribune essay co-authored by Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. As a cardiopulmonary technician, he was assigned to the president's medical team and helped care for Lyndon Johnson. For that service, he received three presidential letters of commendation.
There is much that could be said about this long and troubled love affair between a people and their nation, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice captured its essence in a recent interview with The Washington Times: "What I would like understood as a black American is that black Americans loved and had faith in this country even when this country didn't love and have faith in them - and that's our legacy."
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.