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Red, White and Blues

Illustration by Winston Smith

I don’t pledge allegiance to the flag. I got out of the habit after high school, which is about the same time I started asking myself questions and getting out of many habits that had become rote, habits like putting my hair in big rollers and sitting under a ’50s-style hood dryer a couple hours once a week so that my naturally curly hair would be . . . curly. I had an epiphany in which I realized that not only did the hair dryer make no aesthetic sense, it cost time that I no longer had. When I thought about it a little further, I decided that I didn’t need hair at all. So I cut it off, up to my ears.

Cutting off the pledge was a bit simpler. It didn’t involve an epiphany so much as relief that I now had adult license to choose not to do something that I’d never really liked to do anyway, but felt compelled to under the watchful gaze of teachers or principals who didn’t like students embarrassing them with any bad behavior at school assemblies where important people might be guest-speaking to lift up the youth. Not observing the pledge qualified as bad behavior. Conformity to such a ritual seemed an especially big deal to black teachers and administrators. Not so much because they were patriotic, but because they wanted the world to see that their kids could shut up and show respect, that we could surge to our feet and put our hands over our hearts with the best of them — the whitest of them — and then, in the perfect rhythm for which we were all known (a rhythm that inspired or subdued everybody who heard it, even the biggest redneck), recite the Pledge of Allegiance. And not only could we deliver it with good diction (ah, education!), but we could infuse it with the musicality and organic passion it was meant to have — the kind that white folks like Whitman and Emerson and Thoreau wrote eloquently about but to which they could never give real voice. In short, reciting the pledge at school was a great and regular opportunity for black people to show the world, and show themselves, how positively black and how positively American they could be at the same moment. Here was a perpetual chance to prove that the two things were not mutually exclusive or politically repellent, as they had been for all history. And here, before the wary eyes of those black teachers and administrators, was yet another generation that could make the case.

 

We might have actually made that case — I tried to, however insincerely, until the age of 17 — but there was no way of knowing, because the world wasn’t really all that interested in seeing it made. It never was. After Jim Crow died, whites left the dinner-table conversation, and black people were left to have this longstanding argument over American-ness with themselves, which was more like a monologue that can too often sound like a rant or an apology (sort of like a homeless man on the corner, talking to the sky). It’s too bad, because blacks are the most patriotic of Americans. We believe deeply in its founding principles, even when America gives us no reason to do so. We are its most rugged idealists, and that goes, too, for reviled firebrands like Huey Newton and Louis Farrakhan. (One formed a kind of militia in troubled times, the other dressed up his own militia in Pinky Lee bow ties, both preached self-reliance and independence from governmental tyranny — what could be more Spirit of ’76?)

When the worst happens, even if it happens for decades on end, we tend to preach that better times are just around the corner. Optimism is really our church, and most of us are born belonging to the faith. The times in my life that I’ve consciously broken with that faith I’ve been treated sympathetically, but admonished in so many ways to repair it — get a better job, get religion, get involved in the community. Not once has anybody advised me to give up, not even hardcore veteran black activists who routinely have the harshest things to say about America and its enduring hypocrisies; actually, it is they who keep the faith most alive by improbably expecting the most. And as oppressed and frustrated as we have been in the past, we have generally kept the bad feelings to ourselves. We’ve had plenty of grievances against the government and against society in general, yet we have rarely gone “postal” or blown up any federal buildings or terrorized those who have terrorized against us. Instead, we have quite civilly levied criticism and asked for legal reforms, and then gone home and put up flags on the Fourth of July and Veterans Day, because, after all, we fought and died in wars too, even if we weren’t recognized for it. We belong, even if we keep getting the message that we don’t.

I always found it telling that in more segregated times, black professional associations of lawyers and doctors and the like often called their organizations not black, but “national” — the National Bar Association, National Medical Association, etc. Clearly, “American” was taken and already accounted for, but that didn’t deter blacks from aspiring to it anyway with a word that was no less specific in its claim for inclusion in a country that was, and still is, a vast, volatile experiment in democracy. Because we were denied participation in the experiment for so long, there is nothing we want more than participation, even now. We want meaningful acknowledgment that we too are along for the ride — even in these times of Bush II, during which the ride has gotten horrifically bumpy and it hardly pays to loudly declare yourself an American anymore.

But you have to first experience being American before you can truly renounce it, and blacks know they are still not there. When pundits and cultural observers talk casually about the heartland or the middle class or the swing vote, about all those modest Americans who nonetheless matter a great deal to politicians and pollsters, we know they are not talking about us (our appellations are still working class, poor, urban, disenfranchised and, most popular, African-American). We can be the biggest consumers and purveyors of bling-bling all we want — outdo the capitalists at their own game — but P. Diddy’s luxury SUV is not the same as a soccer mom’s. We do not mean the same things.

And so, to fill this eternal gap, we stubbornly continue to make patriots of ourselves, on our own terms. In the great American tradition of self-invention, we hoist the flag, pledge to it, shoot off fireworks, even defend this country as xenophobically as the next white guy. I read several months ago about one of the many speeches the Reverend Al Sharpton gave during his quixotic bid for the presidency. In this speech, Sharpton described his occasional puzzlement over how the recently departed Ray Charles could sing “America the Beautiful” so convincingly, when in Sharpton’s mind there was precious little for a black man to sing about. Then it hit him: Charles was singing about an America that he literally could not see, but could imagine. It was not an America that he knew, but one that he hoped to know. Most of us are still priming ourselves, from the hairdo on down, for that introduction.


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