I Pledge Allegiance…? Reflections on Race, Patriotism, and the Flag
In 2007 “Sher,” my wife, and I brought our first house together. Married in 2005, appointed to serve in the New York Conference in that same year: me, as a retired bishop, to three congregations in transition to become one; “United Methodist Church of the Village,” in Manhattan, “Sher”, appointed to serve in Grace United Methodist Church, in Park Slope, Brooklyn. From 2005 to 2007, we resided in Brooklyn.
However, in the fall of 2007, we brought our first home together in Central New Jersey, a little south of Newark, NJ in Monmouth County , in the Borough of Matawan, and in a township called Aberdeen.
This 5th house that we saw, in the desirable “I section” of Aberdeen, we fell in love with, prayed for with hope against hope, for prayer was truly the only way we could even imagine acquiring this ranch-style, one floor house, so beautiful to us and physically welcoming to become our home!
When we were escorted by our realtor to view this final listing, there was a black woman and a little black child on the front lawn of this dream house, in this “very white” neighborhood. I’m too embarrassed to say it, -but I guess will – there was no room in my realm of reality that perceived her as anything but a house maid who apparently brought her child to work with her! (Truly sad on my part, truly embarrassing!)
Even in 2007, the DNA of ingrained racism functioned like racially damaged cataracts in the America that I grew up in that angered, grieved, but mostly embarrassed me that I could not perceive her as anything but a hired housekeeper, but not the “house owner” for whom she and her husband were! My psychological perception, shaped by a history of a “defaulted promissory notes” (from-MLK, Jr, “I have a Dream Speech”), could not even see this property, exceptionally manicured, corner house, bordered by three streets in this suburban tucked away neighborhood called “Aberdeen-Matawan” in “America,” as one owned by this couple of Black hue.
America! Suburbia! Yes, and I wanted my “slice of this ‘promised’ pie!”
Well, as my mama taught, reinforced by prayer, church teachings and a constantly lived experience where God does “more than we can think or imagine,” we got this house! Doing unplanned drive-bys before we purchased, then planned visits and several inspections, before and after “possessing this land” I never even noticed – my internal cataracts working again- a very prominent American flag on a flag pole on the front lawn. Maybe it was above the eye level; maybe it inconspicuously blended into the blue house paneling, maybe I just didn’t want to see it…whatever it was, “selective perception” screened it out, and one day it made its conspicuous presence known “in my face.”
The flag, the American flag, that as a child I had to salute in school, but it never felt it saluted me or people of African descent back! Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s and the aftermath 70’s, experiencing live racism, watching my black friends drafted into the Vietnam war beyond their option to heroically “resist” as a “conscientious objectors,” living between (seemingly) the Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X polarities, participating in and having been rained down upon with race riots, participating in protests in Philadelphia and Boston, experiencing poverty and racism in the South during a school trip where I was the only person of color, and a general and prevailing atmosphere of “anti-establishmentarianism” which easily encapsulated an anti-patriotism, I do not remember the last time I “saluted the flag” or repeated the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. I fully lived as if the “the flag” never saluted me or my 12-to-16-hour-working-day black daddy to provide for us children living in South Philadelphia.
The “flag” was an enigma and an anathema to the core of my very being.
So, consistent with these overlaying feelings, one night, I unabashedly, unceremoniously and yet, assuredly, lowered and removed the “flag” representing the America that I never felt “saluted me” or the people of African descent. While the lofty words of the pledge that used to make me swell with pride with words, as in the Constitution of the United States of America that were radically and passionately inclusive – “with liberty and justice for all” – my lived experience, as well as the unwritten intent of these words within our “founding fathers’” minds, were never really inclusive of people of color or women. Pride in America, saluting the flag that it represented, seemed a dissonant and untrue commentary.
On Saturday August 24, 2013 Sherrie and I, along with hundreds of thousands of marchers from across America, and probably some beyond, surrounded the “Reflecting Pool” in the mall of the Lincoln Memorial grounds. We were gathered from all in observance and remembrance, perhaps celebration, of the 50th anniversary of “The March on Washington for Justice, Jobs and Freedom”, which climaxed on August 28th 1963 with the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech by the late, yet living, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While I have read, spoken, led discussions about and participated in years and years of programs and events that remembered the transformative, prophetically paradigmatic platform for the greatest transformation movement in American history, the Civil Rights Movement led by “King,” this year was one of only three times I ever felt a faint, imperceptible, still small voice urging to “raise that enigmatic, anathematic ‘flag’” that still remains deeply hidden in my garage. The pole has remained.
When our President, President Barack Obama, the first president of African descent, was elected, I was, perhaps for a first time, “proud to be an American.” Too many years of disappointment, dispossession and social depression about the plight of “Black America” made his election an unbelievable even surreal reality! America did it! Whites, Blacks, gays and straights, Latinos and Asians, young and old, proved that we could be the “America” that the words of the “founding fathers” were prophetic beyond their unconscious intent, indeed,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [men] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”
Watching the recent movie Daniel Lee’s “The Butler” and once again experiencing the cruel hardship of racist America, yet the tenacious and dignified fight for an America that evidenced “Blacks and Whites” dreaming through the hardship toward some harmonious vision of hope for “liberty and justice” for all, a “still small voiced” urging breathed again, a hope against hope, for an America that can be!
And most prominently, listening and hearing our President’s speech on Wednesday August 28, 2013 resonate so completely with the prophet King of 50 years ago in his “I Have A Dream” speech, both speaking, witnessing to a hope in an America that can be, an America that God has blessed with the power to be a blessing and a witness to the world for “liberty and justice for all.” Both President Obama and Dr. King talked of building, not tearing down, about hope, not hopelessness, about a “Dream” in an America that can be.
While it may still be a really long time before I am able to place that “flag” back on its empty pole outside my house, I must admit, it is rising. For this, I and many others, may – no—will someday be healed and with America, and in the words of Dr. King’s “Dream,”…:
“…this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal […] when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning: “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing… from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
Postscript: At the developing and writing of this reflection, it is very hard to not also reflect upon the dissonance and anxious ambiguity I feel about my, our President and leaders, now pressing towards a military strike on Syria, overtly and intentionally breaking “International Law.” While those 1400 lives allegedly chemically attacked by government forces yields no more palatable taste in my soul, the “punishment” of a military strike in these situations, is inconsistent with my faith stance. “The Flag” is once again hard to raise.