I Pledge Allegiance

by Shaker Carina (@checarina)
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." — NFL player Colin Kaepernick in August 2016, explaining why he chose not to stand during the playing of the national anthem.
It was in maybe 7th or 8th grade that I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance entirely.

It's a daily ritual for American schoolchildren: At the beginning of the day, the bell rings, and a classroom full of children stands at their desks, turns toward the American flag at the front of the room, places their hands over their hearts, and recites these words:

I pledge allegiance to the flag

Of the United States of America

And to the republic for which it stands

One nation, under God, indivisible

With liberty and justice for all

— wait, record scratch, what? Under God? Yeah, I know. That was the part that first got my attention, too. I didn't believe in any god, so the words rang false coming out of my mouth. Moreover, what about all the other Americans who believed in different gods, or no god at all? Were we not part of this "one nation"?

(Sidenote: Did you know the words "under God" weren't added to the pledge until 1954? The original version, written in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, makes no mention of God. Bellamy was also a socialist and had initially considered including the words "equality" and "fraternity" in the pledge, but he thought "that would be too fanciful, too many thousands of years off in realization."

Sigh. I know, Francis, I know.)

So "under God" was the first part of the pledge I dropped. I would stand silently with my hand over my heart, rejoining the chorus on "indivisible." But over time, I became more and more puzzled by the ritual itself. It was something I'd done every school day for years, but I didn't remember ever learning what the pledge meant, only how to say it.

I was, of course, young and naive, but if there's one thing children understand better than adults, innately, it's the power of narratives. It's only adults who are foolish enough to dismiss something as "just a story", as if all of us as children weren't regularly exposed to stories meant to impart some moral or set of values (fables, fairy tales, Bible stories, Disney movies…). So the turning point in my relationship to the pledge came when I asked myself this question: If this were a movie, wouldn't we look like the bad guys?

This was not, at the time, a commentary on any particular American policy, domestic or foreign — I wasn't that politically aware (my political awareness would develop rapidly in the next couple years when George W. Bush "won" the 2000 presidential election, and the Twin Towers were destroyed in 2001). It was simply that I couldn't square the image of a bunch of schoolchildren robotically reciting a pledge we didn't understand with everything I'd been taught about American values — individualism, dissent, independence. You know, not like those poor brainwashed saps living under communist regimes (*cough cough*) or theocratic dictatorships (*severe coughing fit followed by wheezing*). I realized that if you transposed the image from America to China, or to a sci-fi movie, we'd be indistinguishable from the (supposedly) evil empire. I realized that no one had ever discussed with me when I should stop pledging allegiance, even as I learned in history class about the horrors of the Holocaust and the complicity of ordinary German citizens.

So, eventually, I just stopped. At first I stood, but didn't speak the words. Then I dropped my hand from my heart. And finally, I stopped standing altogether, making my non-participation starkly visible.

I was lucky — no one ever gave me a hard time. Maybe my teachers didn't know what to do with me, or maybe they didn't care. Once there was a substitute who asked what I was doing — "Oh," said a classmate. "She doesn't stand."

What does it mean to pledge allegiance to a flag, to a country? What if people do horrible things under the auspices of that flag? What if your country does indefensible things?

Now we are at a moment, the most important moment in my lifetime, to ask that question. And I'm young, but I've heard the same sentiment from older friends: I've never seen this in my lifetime, they say. I never thought we'd be here. Words we had hoped only to say, with joyous surprise, about electing the nation's first Black president, the nation's first woman president. Instead we're saying them about a resurgence of violent, virulent nativism and white supremacy, bolstered by voices coming from the highest levels of government.

So, no, I do not pledge allegiance to a flag, a flag which is changeable, which can change hands from a true leader to a tyrant in a heartbeat. I pledge allegiance, instead, to the very best of what that flag has represented. I pledge allegiance to freedom, to liberty, and to justice. I pledge allegiance to humanity. I pledge allegiance to my sisters and siblings of the human race, the downtrodden, the forgotten, the marginalized. I pledge allegiance to this Earth we share. I pledge allegiance to Black lives. I pledge allegiance to every woman and person who desires bodily autonomy. I pledge allegiance to indigenous water protectors. I pledge allegiance to the undocumented, the detained, the banned, the deported.

I pledge allegiance to myself, to always remain true to what lives in my heart. I pledge allegiance to you and me. That is my pledge. And this pledge I will stand for.

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