I’ve never felt comfortable reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Repeating words at the same time as a group held little meaning for me. These words were not my creation and it felt disingenuous to put my hand on my heart as if the words caused a great swell of emotion.
One moment stands out in particular. In the days following September 11th, the leaders of my high school organized a school wide Pledge of Allegiance under the flag in front of our school. All students left their classes to stand outside on the steps and say the pledge in unison. I remember leaning over to my friend to admit that I felt uncomfortable because the pledge reminded me of the loyalty oaths during the Red Scare. A teacher whom I had always considered reasonable overheard me and snapped that she did not care how I felt; I had to say it. I was confused. Did my mindless repetition of words prove my emotions about the events of that day? I use this story to illustrate that I understand that my refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance is a sensitive subject that will upset people.
As I stated above, I have always been uncomfortable saying the Pledge of Allegiance. If I am being honest, I admit that until recently I said it, if only to avoid the judgmental sideways glances of those around me. Recent events have made my refusal much simpler. This leads me to my motivation for writing this essay and the reason I refuse to say the Pledge: “with liberty and justice for all.”
Those six words could be quite powerful if I believed that they were true. If I could ignore the myriad times throughout American history where those words were broken. I am unwilling to overlook the overwhelming number of men of color who have been killed by police over the last year. I am not naïve. I know that these events are not new or unique. Men of color are often targeted by police, even for the most benign offences. But I can’t stop thinking about these men every morning when I hear the pledge. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Not only were all of these men killed by police, but the men responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown will not be put on trial. How can anyone claim that there is justice for all in the face of these events? I feel powerless in the face of so much violence and disregard for human life.
I am furious and frustrated and feel completely helpless. I keep searching for something that I can do to protest the lack of humanity that has infected our country and justice system. James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” It doesn’t feel like much, but I know that I can and have to criticize America to try to make it better. I can refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance and explain to you what that means. If I repeat the untruths, I continue to perpetuate them. I refuse to ignore the horrors of the persistent racism because it is uncomfortable. I refuse to raise my son believing lies because it is hard to tell the truth. I hope I can follow James Baldwin’s example and teach my son to do the same.