We had our ritual beginning to each day in our grammar school classrooms: hang up our coats, sharpen our pencils, say our prayers and, then, recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that the Pledge of Allegiance was not an activity that everyone took for granted. Americans of color: Japanese-Americans, Latino Americans, African Americans, members of First Nations and others have told me that when the Pledge of Allegiance was recited in their classrooms it caused a true pain in their hearts.
Many felt an agonizing choice to join in or to offer some kind of resistance. Friends have told me, for example, that they never put their hands to their hearts or said the words out loud. Another colleague described how he crossed his fingers behind his back and mouthed his own words, “And to the Republic for which it lies.”
These friends’ and colleagues’ ancestors had been rounded up and herded onto slave ships or behind barbed wired “camps” or onto “reservations.” The heroes I celebrated without a thought – George Washington, Andrew Jackson or FDR – had kidnapped, tortured, massacred or imprisoned tens of thousands of my friends’ ancestors. When they were growing up, they knew first hand of the discrimination in housing, religion, sports, entertainment, healthcare and education that their relatives had suffered and, in many cases, continued to endure. Of course, the Pledge of Allegiance meant something different to them.
“It’s not that we didn’t love our country,” one storyteller friend told me, “but we were just a whole lot more realistic about how much the U.S. was living up to its promise of “liberty and justice for all”.
Back then, my friends’ young protests had to be hushed and hidden. I wonder: Is it time that we can admit that this country has and does work better for some more than others? Is there room in our classrooms now for these other American experiences and, therefore, expressions of anger and frustration? Can we call criticism as well as celebration patriotic?
When I was growing up in the 1950s, we were never taught the full American story and, because of that, our ignorance left us ill equipped to do our part to shape American ideals into American realities.
This 4th of July, my hope is that we can celebrate freedom from our ignorance of the full American experience. Amidst all the barbecues, parades and fireworks, my wish is that we can love our country as a parent loves his or her child: loving our country with all our hearts but never denying the mistakes and cruelties so that there is a better chance that those faults are not repeated.
This and other Susan O’Halloran articles may be reprinted with this addition: Susan O’Halloran provides seminars, webinars and three-year long programs for creating more inclusion in your organization. www.SusanOHalloran.com