Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pledge of Allegiance

I'm from a generation of Americans that had to say the "Pledge of Allegiance" every day, at least in grade-school. I can't remember if we kept saying it in high school. "Had to say" is a bit strong because it was just automatic, just as we "had to have" recess and "had to" ride the bus.

I recall that almost everyone (in third or fourth grade, say) had trouble with the word, "indivisible." Kids had trouble saying it, and some people said, "invisible," which in some ways is more accurate because "one nation under God," which "indivisible" modifies retroactively, is an abstract concept--the "nation under God" isn't visible to anyone; only little scenes from it are. Anyway, nobody ever handed out the text of the pledge and went through it to explain what a "republic" was or that the word was "indivisible" not "invisible." A little primer on the pledge would have been helpful.

I remember that at some point, being a literalist, I had trouble with the concept of pledging allegiance to a flag. I could understand pledging allegiance to a friend (say), or a pet, perhaps even a nation (although I don't think I pushed it that far--"nation" is a large concept for a grade-schooler). I couldn't visualize my having allegiance to a piece of cloth. I think I was the kind of learner who needed to visualize things. Of course, the sense of the pledge is that you are pledging allegiance to the nation by pledging allegiance to a symbol of the nation, but I couldn't wrap (so to speak) my literal mind around that concept back then. If they wanted me to pledge allegiance to the nation, they should have cut out "the middle-man" of the flag--that was my thinking back then.

Apparently, the pledge was written by one Francis Bellamy, who was--if I have the story straight--a Christian Socialist. --That's right: a Christian (a Baptist, I think) who believed in left-leaning politics. How ironic. --Because now right-leaning Christian Republicans seem to "own," so to speak, all issues related to the flag. That's another irony, in some ways, because Jesus Christ made that interesting (and logical) distinction between God and Caesar. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's"[such as taxes, or a pledge to be loyal to the Roman Empire], but keep all that separate from your spiritual life; don't confuse the nation or the empire in which you live with God's province. Isn't that the sense of what Jesus says? I think I have it right. But of course some people believe the U.S. is a Christian nation, even though a lot of U.S. citizens (born or naturalized) are Jewish, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Hindu, Universalist Unitarian, agnostic, atheist, and so on. And more practically, there seems to be political hay to be made from issues related to the flag and to connecting the U.S. with one particular creed.

Anyway, Bellamy published the pledge in an adolescents' magazine (in 1892, I think) and later people started saying it in schools and at meetings. I think Congress still says it. Apparently, because of a federal-court ruling in 2006, you can't force kids in public school to say it anymore. I don't know that you ever could. Who's going to check to see if a kid is just mouthing the words or not? There's no way to insure quality-control.

And as a friend of mine once pointed out, one of the most likely persons to take an oath of loyalty would be a disloyal person--like a spy. I imagine some KGB agents said the pledge of allegiance at meetings they had infiltrated, back in the day.

The following poem plays off the pledge, not as a parody, for I actually remember the pledge fondly, partly because of the "indivisible/invisible" confusion, partly because I remember how we 8- ,9- , and 10-year-olds rushed through it, as if we were racing--as kids will (we might as well have been speaking Swedish or Czech, for heaven's sake), and partly because it reminds me of how literal-minded I was and am. The following poem may attempt to imply that almost everyone is so busy trying just to be themselves and get through the day that a pledge to an indivisible republic is a pretty tall order.


I pledge allegiance to the flagging
spirit of hope in the united cells
of my cerebellum, and to
the republic of individuation
for which they stand, one
person, under the impression
he exists with liberty— just this, for now.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

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