For the last two weeks, my daughter has been making the same observation wherever we go: “Look, Mommy; the American flag!…God Bless America!” We don’t talk much about the flag in our house (or about blessing America), but today I found out why she had become such a vexillologist.* When I dropped her off at pre-school this morning, her regular Tuesday music session was already in progress. I helped K quickly wash her hands so that she could run off and join her classmates. As I walked out of the room, I heard her music teacher say, “Okay, let’s stay standing, because I brought my flags with me today!” I left the classroom, but stood outside the door to watch as the music teacher picked two children to hold two flags, and then led the group in a song that I couldn’t hear, but assume was patriotic. Watching all of this, I was caught off guard.
My husband was raised in the black nationalist tradition, and I am first-generation—both of my parents are immigrants to the United States. As a result, neither my husband nor I are strangers to alienation within the borders of one’s own country. As far back as high school I stopped automatically pledging allegiance to the flag every morning. Part of it was pure teenage rebellion; I was just daring somebody—anybody—to try and force me to recite the creed. But part of it was also a political awakening. It had started becoming obvious to me that, some 30 years after the civil rights movement, Blacks were still not necessarily embraced as rightful citizens of the United States. The American flag, in all its starred and striped glory, still did not represent me, and so I did not have to pledge allegiance to it. One need only look at the enduring birthism movement in the country, a full 3 years into Obama’s presidency, to find continuing evidence of the country’s ambivalence towards its minorities.
As an adult, I remain conflicted about my country of origin. Our national conversation—or maybe lack thereof—regarding marginalization and subordination is discouraging. A social and legal embrace of “colorblindness” have made impotent the words of the Fourteenth Amendment; instead of genuine respect and dignity for all citizens, we have mere formal equality, as if treating similarly people who are not similarly situated could ever result in justice. The current discourse about reproductive rights has left me feeling attacked and hurt; the rhetoric makes clears that my capacity as a woman for thoughtful and rational decision-making is still questioned. Buoyed three years ago by the election of our first Black president, I am now deflated by the racism and classism that still abounds; that is, indeed, on the rise, as indicated by presidential candidates who “don’t want to give their money to Blacks,” or who “are not concerned about the very poor.” Although I never feel more American than when I am abroad, when in my own country, patriotic stirrings wax and wane. I dismiss The Star Spangled Banner as war propaganda, but eagerly harmonize to “This Land is Your Land;” I roll my eyes at “America, The Beautiful,” yet, “If I Had a Hammer” never fails to bring me to tears. I’m ultimately more patriotic to the idea of what American could be, but not what it presently is.
Which brings me back to my daughter. What, exactly, do I want to teach her about allegiance to the flag? She is, after all, a citizen of this country, and must learn that, if only to ensure that she exercises her rights. Like me, however, I’d also like her to see the potential of the United States—which means teaching her to love this country, so that one day she might be motivated to improve this country. And yet, as I walked away from her classroom today, I felt uneasy about having watched the classroom teacher help K place her tiny hand over her beating heart. My reaction to such early political indoctrination regarding a country that has still not done right by all its citizens is mixed; much like my feelings about my country, I suppose.
*vexillology: the scholarly study of flags