I Pledge Allegiance?

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

the personal is political

– on the occasion of attending my first Donna Brazile talk and moments before composing tomorrow’s lecture on Sade

In 1988, at the tender age of 9, I campaigned for Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Nomination. My brothers and I, 11 and 7 themselves, went door-to-door in Perth Amboy, New Jersey registering people to vote, and chiefly, amusing the hell out of them. If pre-pubescent little black kids are not enough to convince you to fulfill your civic duty, I don’t know what will.

My son, twenty years later, voted for Barack Obama on nick.com. I must admit that no matter how special I thought it was when Mekhi declared,  “Mom, don’t you think Barack Obama looks like me!”, in the ’08 season, I still have my reservations about our often conservative first gentleman.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tonight, Donna Brazile stated that the reason she does not want to run for political office is like the reason why she doesn’t want to be married, because it requires staying in one place. And she likes to be, “on the go!” Though I traditionally do not believe in qualifying oppressions I can’t help but think if I had to choose between working in the white house or working as a house wife, WHICH I, OF COURSE, DO NOT!!!!, give me the suburban soccer mom, every day of the week.

It is so painfully obvious that I am from this country, not only because I am here, with my black family, simultaneously at war and in line with our nation’s political agenda. So many of us, even those not from this country, participate in this American narrative. My children however like to pretend they are from some other place. My oldest in particular has no clue he is “African-American.” I like to blame this on his educational environments and his penchant for White televisual media. In one of his four public schools there was a banner that read, “this is America; everyone reads!,” and in his most recent they celebrated “diversity,” with the book (and participating feast) “Everybody Cooks Rice.” For the latter he brought in rice pudding which I had to convince him was his great-great-grandmother’s dish.

Today, I am feeling particularly angry about not only the post-racial politics of today’s presidential aura, I am also frequently miffed at the government control over our bodies and families. The first time I almost wrote off Barack Obama was following his problematic “Father’s Day” speech in Chicago. Now, with the inability to promote national legislation legalizing gay marriage, the still-inadequate health insurance and the lack of access to safe abortions and contraception, etc., I am wondering where all my Cocoamamas stand. Granted we chose a right to have at least one child. However; I know that does not “safely” box us into right hetero-normative agendas?

 

 

Letter from an American Patriot

My favorite word these days seems to be “nuance” and my favorite people are those who point it out to me or help me see more of it. Because it appears to me that nuance has become an undervalued commodity in an age where we deplore British Petroleum but drive SUVs and leave lights on galore; hate the paparazzi and tabloids but inhale the latest about those crazy celebs and their nutty lives; and shake our heads at those zealous Middle Easterners and their constant blood feuds without retracing history to understand why.

We want to live in a black and white world of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and saved versus damned. But the absence of nuance has gotten us all into quite a pickle. Reality is almost never cut and dried, it doesn’t come in 30-second sound bites, and the way out of the mess we seem to be in is neither easily understood or executed.

The problem is that people are too used to it the other way. You can go from hardship to ease relatively easily, but don’t you dare talk to anyone about tightening the belt or giving up the comforts and amenities we are all used to. Because most of us feel entitled to them. And will kick and scream our way into the abyss to protect our “rights.”

The Fourth of July is almost upon us Americans and I will count myself among most of you because I am, after all, a naturalized American citizen and have now lived here for most of my life. And in celebration of the birth of our country, I would like to submit that to think of the collective rather than the individual is not un-American. And to consider the best for all rather than a few is not unpatriotic. In fact, I think selfishness is un-American. Greed is unpatriotic. And to continue to perpetuate disunity and divisiveness is a crime against national security.

How’s that for nuance?

Happy birth of our country.