During my junior year of high school, I couldn’t bring myself to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I had been following the footnotes on African American history for awhile now as the history unit only addressed slavery and a few key leaders from the Civil Rights Movement. The end read more like “to be continued” because there was no happily ever after. African Americans were still fighting for liberty and justice for themselves and oftentimes, by themselves.
Because the Pledge of Allegiance really meant “with liberty and justice for all socially colored white people.”
So, while persons where rebelling against their parents, I had decided to rebel against the American government. More important than covering up pimples, the integrity of my witness would be compromised if I put my hand over my heart. At the same time, I was growing closer to God and increasing my personal commitment to the faith. A year later, I would hear the call of God to preach. At seventeen years old, I would pledge allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, this just didn’t feel right or like the right thing to do as a Christian. Though the pledge was written by Francis Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister, I found his words to be hypocritical: “and to the republic for which it stands.” All power belonging to the people was in direct contradiction with the Scriptures. While for a different reason, Jehovah’s Witnesses felt the same, believing the flag represented a graven image and was in direct conflict with their faith. In 1943, the Supreme Court agreed.
It seemed like I was putting my faith in nationalism but America had never believed in me. Indivisible? We had always been divided. Certainly, this was the case in 1892 when it was published. While Ellis Island became a welcome center for immigrants, the rights of African Americans had only recently been included in the Constitution with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The American flag was no welcome mat, no sign of hospitality for them.
Described as “restive” in an article by the Smithsonian, Bellamy had left the ministry to work for a magazine, Youth’s Companion. It was during this time that he advocated to make Columbus Day a holiday; today, there is a growing list of states that celebrate Native American Day or Indigenous People Day instead. Bellamy said that he had written the pledge in response to the Civil War and felt a need for loyalty. With the recent uproar over Confederate statues and the loyalty of America to some of its citizens being questioned, it seems that the Pledge of Allegiance has not done what he had hoped.
And neither did my principal after the teacher sent me to her office for refusing to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Before Kaepernick took a knee, I decided to sit down. When I returned to my classroom, I returned to my seat. I was allowed to sit down during my junior and senior year.
But, the thought of permission to refuse had not crossed my mind. I didn’t know that pledging one’s allegiance to the American flag was required for belonging and membership, that it was against some social rule, that I would need a “get of the saying the Pledge of Allegiance pass” before I could return to class. I didn’t know that America seemingly has a kind of cult following.
And I would not have considered telling this story if not for the one I heard about a sixth grader named Stone Chaney who was physically removed from his seat by his teacher after he refused to pledge allegiance to the American flag. He’s an eleven year old. Like me, he had his reasons. He pledges allegiance to God and family– not a flag. He had stopped pledging allegiance to the flag in second grade!
More than a pinky swear, this allegiance asks for loyalty. This is problematic because the United States of America does not have a history of commitment to African Americans. In fact, America still has a poor record of fidelity to the African American community, its needs and values. It asks for an inequitable devotion as America does not have the potential to produce, the power to provide or will to pursue liberty and justice for all. Our legal system is one glaring example of betrayal.
Worse still, it competes with my pledge to Jesus Christ who asks that I take up his cross– not America’s flag– and follow him (Matthew 16.24). And yes, I still sit down during the Pledge of Allegiance and ironically, it has included a pew.