We never gave it a thought. The Pledge of Allegiance was just how we started each day in our grammar school classrooms. First we faced the crucifix at the front of the room and said our prayers, then we quarter-turned to the flag. The whole room filled with the smell of our newly-sharpened pencils laid to rest in long grooves at the top of our desks. That was how everyday started.
It wasn’t until we were adults that we realized the Pledge of Allegiance wasn’t a mindless activity for many. Americans of color: Japanese-Americans, Latino Americans, African Americans, members of First Nations and others have told me that when the Pledge of Allegiance was recited in their classrooms they stood, but never put their hands to their hearts or said the words. Another colleague described how he crossed his fingers behind his back and mouthed his own words, “And to the Republic for which it lies.”
These friends’ and colleagues’ ancestors had been rounded up and herded onto slave ships or behind barbed wire “camps” or onto “reservations.” The heroes we celebrated without a thought – George Washington, Andrew Jackson or FDR – had kidnapped, tortured, massacred or imprisoned tens of thousands of our friends’ ancestors. When they were growing up, they knew first hand of the discrimination in housing, religion, sports, entertainment and education to name just that their parents faced. Of course, the Pledge of Allegiance meant something different to them. “It’s not that we didn’t love our country,” one storyteller friend said, “but we were just a whole lot more realistic about how much the U.S. was living up to its promise of ‘freedom and justice for all’.”
It is troubling to hear of friends’ young protests or awareness that had to be hushed and hidden. Is it time that we can admit that this country has and does work better for some than others? Is there room in our American classrooms now for these alternative experiences and, therefore, expressions of anger and frustration?
Growing up in the 1950s, we were never taught the full American story and, because of that, our ignorance left us ill equipped to do our part to shape American ideals into American realities. This 4th of July, can we celebrate freedom from our ignorance of the full American story and freedom of expression for all our students?