The Pledge: questioning the point of the Pledge of Allegiance
And the same way every morning it began. The day’s designated leader, sometimes the teacher, sometimes a classmate, but often times myself, would raise first. They’d say “Put your right hand over your heart.” And so I did, and they too. And at our age nobody ever stopped to asked why. Despite our narrow, eight year old vocabularies, which were often tapered to “yes sir,” “no sir,” “please” and “thank you,” we never even ceased to inquire about certain words or phrases. It seemed to be something we just did.
Because as Americans-- and I use the term in its broadest sense--this oration has become indicative as to who we are. We've said it at ballgames, in school functions, at organization meetings and during ceremonies. This salute, this national prayer, symbolic of Freedom, Justice and Equality is ingrained in us.
I don’t even recall learning it.
But I remember pledging with such pride, with such ambition. And it wasn’t because I was supposed to, either. It was because for those twelve, thirteen, fourteen seconds, I felt oneness. It was the chorus of thirty prepubescent voices singing in unison. It was the way our teacher smiled as we did so and the way our chins lifted lifted high to the sky as the room vibrated.
It was the impalpable.
For those fourteen seconds I felt that I needed nothing in life to succeed outside of my classmates. There was no competition, no angst, no spite. No feelings of insecurity, inferiority or superiority. It was in those fourteen seconds that I was truly an American.
It was liberating.
But somehow, over that summer between third and fourth grade, something changed. Like a feline I became more inquisitive, more curious. I began to ask more questions. Nothing religious really or even too deeply philosophical-- at the time those things didn't interest me much. My nine year old self was very secular in his approach, increasingly interested in things like space, time and gravity. It was important to me that I decipher between what was truth and what was fiction.
I became more rational.
I remember one specific instance when my teacher assigned a book report. The prompt went something along the lines of : Name and Describe one your heroes in two paragraphs. Well up to that point, besides Michael Jordan, my father and my Papa, I didn't have any real heroes.
So I inquired.
I asked my teacher Mrs. M, who I remember so vividly as having a motherly warmth about her, for a suitable hero. Upon my arrival she smiled, as she always did, and within fifteen seconds of my asking she had a small black book in hand. She opened up the book and showed me a photo of a man who I thought looked just like me. She told me that this man had a dream, a dream that one day people would not be judged by the color of their skin.
In America? I wondered.
She showed me a photo of a water fountain, sort of like the ones my friends and I drank from on the playground. On the photo were signs saying, ‘Colored only,’ and ‘White only.’ Well, we didn't have those rules on the playground. I knew, because Me and Robbie and Joseph would all drink together sometimes.
Weren't those people in the photo, American?
Mrs. M went on to tell me about schools and buses, movie theaters and restaurants, some of which were my favorite places in the world. She told me that years ago, back when she too was my age, these things were what people referred to as ‘segregated.’ That meant that Me, Robbie and Joseph wouldn't have been able to eat together, or sit together and watch X-Men.
In hindsight, I came to the realization that back then I would have been alone.
That thought stuck with me. And so for the next few days, whether playing, or dreaming, or working with my classmates, I felt an indescribable weight on my heart. It was a curious, new found anxiety I’d never experienced before.
I had so many more questions.
But still, I continued the same way every morning. I’d stand with my right hand over my heart, though a little less tall. And I’d pledge my allegiance, but a little less loud. Until one day, after the pledge was over, I mustered up the courage to ask another question-- this time in front of the class.
“What is indivisible?” I asked. “It’s what America should be,” she said. “And what is liberty Mrs. M?” And with a slight pause she replied, “well, that is what Americans should have.” And my coy, nine year old self, now dying to ask one final burning question uttered: “What is justice, Mrs. M?” And it was in that moment--the slightest moment, that I saw the omnipresent twinkle in Mrs. M’s eye, fade. “Justice is what all American’s should be treated with.”
And so I nodded, and I sat.
And no day therein, was ever the same. I never made the same kinds of friends, I became too reclusive. I never pledged my allegiance the same, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with thought. And I lost a bit of hope, I think I became far too rational.
It seemed as if at that time, that pivotal time in my nine year old life, all the questions and values concomitant to adulthood had finally risen in my life.
And for some reason, I felt less American.