I said the Pledge of Allegiance this year for the first time since I was eight or nine. After Obama's election, I truly felt like an American for the first time. I know, that is an odd concept for some. I am willing to go out on a limb here and guess that everyone who has a hard time grasping that concept is probably not Black. You are probably not Native American, Latino, or Asian either. If you are Black, until today, pledging your loyalty to a country that still excluded you from many of the privileges that you helped to create and defend felt uncomfortable, ridiculous, weak. I would have felt embarrassed to say The Pledge before. Like a woman declaring her love to the husband who abuses her. Knowing that she loves him but knowing she should not. Knowing that others would look at her like a fool for doing so. I would have felt like an Uncle Tom. There has never been an American Flag in or on my house, car, clothes, or in my hand. Not since a July 4th parade I was in, in kindergarten.
I stopped saying The Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. When all the other kids stood, I remained in my seat. I was pulled out of class and sent to the principle's office. My mother was called. She took off time from work to come down to the school to meet with the principle of Lingelbach Elementary School, Mr. Smallwood. The minute Mr. Smallwood saw my mother he knew he had made a mistake. I could see it in his eyes and I smiled and sat back in my chair to enjoy the show. My mother walked into his office, all 5'11" of her, six inches taller than Mr. Smallwood. She had a shoulder to shoulder afro and she was wearing a dashiki and platform shoes that made her well over 6'2" tall. She ranted and raved and cussed and hollered for a full five-minutes while Mr. Smallwood apologized again and again and promised her that I would not be made to say the Pledge ever again.
All through high school and college I sat while the other kids stood. I stayed mum while they repeated those words of fidelity to this country that I could not fully embrace as my own, feeling that it had not fully embraced me. As an adult, during the Clinton years, I was more subtle. I stood but would not recite and did not put my hand over my heart. It was bad enough that the government took my taxes without truly representing me, I was not going to compound the insult by bowing down before my oppressor. This feeling became more vehement during Reagan's term in office when the young Black male became Public Enemy number 1 and I just happened to be of that sex and hue and even more so during the reign of George W. Bush when we were simply ignored by a president who appeared content to pretend that Black people simply did not exist.
Then came Barrack Obama. Martin Luther King said that we would reach the mountain top and seeing Barrack's inauguration felt like that mountain top. For a man born of an African father and a white mother to have reached the highest office in the land was the very epitome of that dream. For the first time, it felt like my America. I felt represented in a way that no Black person in America has ever felt before.
I was reading a a poem today by Linda Addison titled My Country The Day Before, January 19, 2009, and I was almost moved to tears by these words:
Stars and stripes forever
red, white and blue
bringing us all home
finally, willing to be
responsible, each person finally
willing to be American
I had always been unwilling to be American because America had always felt unwilling to have me as one of its citizens. I had always felt as if America wished it could be rid of me, this dirty little secret. Black people, like Native Americans, are a reminder of America's less than virtuous past. But Black Americans have not been murdered to the point of near extinction. We were not interbred with Caucasians to the point that we can no longer be identified. And those of us who remained were not herded onto reservations and forgotten. Our continued presence in nearly every city in America was a constant reminder, an embarrassment, a blight, a stain, and we felt it. We felt it every day. I felt it every day. I felt your pity. I felt your anger. I felt your disgust and I felt your apathy and so I returned it. Even when I tried my best to let it go, it remained, boiling there below the surface. Now, I can let it go.
The idea that we are all expecting Obama to wave some magic wand and cure all the ills of the world is ridiculous. We expect him to make mistakes. We expect him to have the usual failures and controversies that every president before him has had along with quite a few victories. But the victory we were all most interested in was the one he made in November when he became the first Black man elected to the office of the president. If he does nothing more, that was enough.
I know, that seems odd for those of you who have grown up looking at faces that looked like you and your family whenever you watched a presidential election or inauguration or whenever the president of a major US company or corporation spoke on TV. It may even seem silly and naive. "Silly Negroes. He's only a man." We must seem deluded, hysterical, misguided. Someday, I hope to be so comfortable with the fact that a Black person can get elected to any office in this country, hold any position in business or politics, that I will look back on this day and wonder what all the fuss was about. I hope to be able to look at this type of event as no big deal. I hope to be able to wait and see what the Black guy does when he takes office before getting all excited. To see it all as inconsequential in the face of all the other challenges America has to face. I hope to feel that someday. But not today. Today, for the first time in memory, I am proud to be an American.