What I Pledge Allegiance To
I returned home after 20 years away, and it helped me finally come to terms with our nation’s most fraught symbol.
Story by Kiese Laymon
Illustration by Jesse Harp
What I Pledge Allegiance To
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America …
There’s a raggedy American flag hanging outside my house. I know I should take it down, but I’m afraid. For the past 15 years, I lived in various apartments in upstate New York. After accepting a new job at the University of Mississippi this summer, I moved into a university-owned house down the road from William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford. Nothing about the new house or neighborhood surprised me more than the American and old Magnolia flags hanging in front of neighboring colonials, ranches, and bungalows.
I was born and raised in Jackson, just three hours south of Oxford, but I’d never seen a Magnolia flag before. The flag, which was the state’s official banner from 1861 to 1865, has one white star in a square of blue in the left corner and one strip of red on the right. There is no prominent confederate battle emblem in the corner like there is in our current state flag, which was adopted in 1894. There is simply a magnolia tree floating like a nappy green afro in the middle of white space.
On my first day in the neighborhood, all the green afro flags made me think my white neighbors were what my family called “them good white folk.” Before I found out the Magnolia flag was actually Mississippi’s flag of secession, I imagined these particular good white folk as courageous Mississippians wholly prepared to confront the layered traditions of white power and black suffering that were violently stitched into our nation, our state, and today’s prevailing Mississippi flag.
For me, the American flag is no better. Actually, it’s far worse. It reminds me of what we black folk have survived and witnessed at the hands of white folk hiding behind the American flag for centuries. Unlike the other flags in the neighborhood, the one flying outside my house might be the dustiest, most worn out American flag I’ve seen in my life: the blue bleeds purple; the red fades pink; and the white wants desperately to be the color of bad banana pudding. There are two long rips on the top, and a more significant rip across the bottom bar. The flag rarely blows in the wind. Depending on the breeze, it leans slowly left or right, but mostly it just slumps, looking neither prideful nor ashamed.
I asked my Mama what it would mean morally for an unapologetically ungrateful black boy like me to let the flag fly. She told me it would mean bodily harm to take the flag down. But I swore against her wishes, promising to remove it the next weekend.
When the time came, I walked out on the porch, eyed the flag, smelled it, looked out at the neighborhood, but was ultimately too afraid to go through with it. Instead, I sat my big black ass on the porch, sipped sweet tea that wasn’t quite sweet enough, and watched white folk watch me watch them watch their property value plummet.
I waved, said “Hey there” and “Alright now” like all petty Mississippians with good home training should. Sitting next to that flag in my new neighborhood, and hiding behind my Mason jar of tea and my college-issued MacBook, I felt like a wannabe Mississippi radical, a bougie black sell-out, and a weak-kneed American wanderer hunting for a manageable fight to win outside. Inside, I was confused about where I’d been, where I was now, and who I could choose to be tomorrow. I was absolutely in need of someone to call my cowardice courage. I wondered if I’d chosen the wrong job, the wrong neighborhood, the wrong house, and the wrong state.
White American cowardice created black intergenerational poverty. Black intergenerational poverty, among other things, was why I accepted a job and a subsidized home in Oxford, and not one in Jackson. The job in Oxford allowed me to take care of Grandmama the way she deserved to be taken care of. I am technically home, but I never associated home with this part of Mississippi, this many white people, or with America. Up north, in New York, I became a black American. I came home to the Magnolia state, so I could be a black Mississippian again.
… and to the Republic for which it stands …
When I moved to upstate New York more than a decade ago, the aunt of one of my Lebanese American friends helped me find an apartment. It was in the city of Poughkeepsie, a place I had to go because none of the places close to Vassar College, where I worked, would rent to me.
I moved into a one-bedroom apartment a few weeks before September 11, 2001.
On September 12, I watched my Pakistani neighbors plaster their Corollas with “I Love the U.S.A.” bumper stickers and dress their newborn in a red, white, and blue outfit I’d seen at Marshalls. I didn’t understand.
Three days later, on September 15, I decided to take the Metro North down to New York City to volunteer at Ground Zero. On the way to the train, I watched white folk in broad daylight grip their purses and bags, like they always did when big black boys like me walked by.
The Poughkeepsie station was packed with slack-faced soldiers holding M-16s who stood next to ignorant-looking German Shepherds. When I got on the train, a dark-skinned South Asian family was seated in front of me. The entire family wore clothing in variations of red, white, and blue. The father placed a suitcase above their seat; on it a sticker proclaimed, “Proud to be an American.” Now I understood.
“If they reach in that bag, I know something,” a young black man wearing green wristbands said to his friend.
“What you know?” I asked.
“I know they better not try to blow up this train,” he said, loud enough so everyone in our car could hear. “That’s what I know.”
A white man whose chest hair looked like it was soaked in curl activator nodded affirmatively across the aisle from us and gave the young brother a thumbs up. “U.S.A., right?” the white man asked.
“You already know,” he shot back. “U.S.A.”
I rolled my eyes. “These white folk got you tripping,” I whispered for the family in front of me to hear, and then added more loudly, for everyone. “These people ain’t trying to blow up no train.”
For the entire hour to Grand Central Terminal, the family in front of me sat still and erect, rarely tilting their heads to speak to each other. Every time the child, who looked like he was 6 or 7, tried to move, his parents held him in place. I kept thinking of my own Mama’s directive to be excellent, disciplined, elegant, emotionally contained, clean, and perfect in the face of American white supremacy. “I gotta pee,” the boy whispered to his mother, but she wouldn’t let go of his arm.
We were hungry for black American wins regardless of how tiny those wins were, mostly because we knew that white Americans had no idea how to justly win or gently lose.
When the train pulled into Grand Central, I smelled New York City: a mix of Porta-Potty stink, Axe bodyspray, and still, dank air. The father grabbed their suitcase from the bin and the boy stood next to his parents. The mother placed her body and the suitcase in front of the child, shielding our eyes from his piss-darkened red shorts.
“Thank you,” the mother said as she walked by me.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Y’all have a good day.”
I wondered if this heroic American feeling I had was what “good white folk” felt when we thanked them for not being as patronizing, cowardly anti-black and, ironically, American as they could.
In New York, like Mississippi, and like every place I’d ever been in the United States, American men choosing a different kind of cowardice were generally treated like heroes. As I journeyed deeper into New York City that day, I saw and heard white and black American men in a Lower East Side bodega filled with mini American flags talk about harming “the Moozlums who blew up our city” and speculate about where they would attack next. We should know better, I thought, even if I had no idea who “we” were and where “better” actually lived.
Thirty minutes later, I stood dizzy in a cathedral near Ground Zero, passing out bottled water, sandwiches, and blankets to tired firefighters still looking for survivors. I wondered what the firefighters felt when they went home, away from this spectacular American adoration we hoisted on them. How did they deal with the sadness of loss when they were alone? I had no idea what the people of this essentially American city just experienced. And, for the first time since I left home six years earlier, when I was 20 years old, I knew that Mama and Grandmama were safer back in Jackson than I was up north. Their safety had nothing to do with airplanes torpedoing skyscrapers filled with people just doing their jobs. Mama and Grandmama were safer because they were home, in another deeply Southern black country, and they knew exactly where they were in the world.
I’d been forced, since I left Mississippi, to accept that I didn’t understand much about New York, Americans, or home. Moving up north muddied my conveniently clear, deeply black Mississippi perceptions of America. The black Mississippians I knew had tons of home training and never said one bruising word about Muslim folk. But we had oh-so-many things to say about the ways of white Americans and how the United States persecuted us. We praised a lot of people, places, and things draped in the American flag, particularly during events like the Olympics, but those people, places, and things were always black, and almost always deeply Southern. We were hungry for black American wins regardless of how tiny those wins were, mostly because we knew that white Americans had no idea how to justly win or gently lose.
That day in Lower Manhattan, inside the cathedral, there was so much generosity and patience in the face of absolute fear and loss. Before leaving, we held little American flags, gripped coarse American hands, and thanked each other for bringing the best of our American selves out to help. I assumed, though, that everyone in that loving space knew what was going to happen next. I didn’t know much about New York, but I knew what white Americans demanded of America. White Americans, primarily led by their white presidents, were about to wrap themselves in flags and chant “U.S.A.!” as poor cousins, friends, sons, and daughters showed a weaker, browner, less Christian part of the world how the United States dealt with loss.
When I took the train back to Poughkeepsie that night, I remember feeling sad that there were no “Muslim-looking” folk in my car who I could feel good about silently defending. I looked out at the Hudson River and thanked God that the attacks of 9/11 hadn’t happened while a black president was in office. I wondered what destructive lengths a black president would have to go to prove themselves appropriately American and presidential in the face of such terror.
I waited in the parking lot of my apartment for a white woman walking out of the complex to get in her car so I wouldn’t scare her. On the way into my apartment, I saw and heard an airplane overhead. I remembered some of the men in a nearby bodega talking about a nuclear facility 30 miles from me called Indian Point. According to them, Muslims were going to fly four planes into Indian Point in the next few days, causing hundreds of thousands of Americans to die from acute radiation syndrome and cancer.
I scurried into my apartment, locked the door, got in bed, and listened for loud booms brought on by people who hated us because of our freedom.
… one Nation under God, indivisible …
I spent the first weekend of this August down in New Orleans for my family reunion. I hadn’t been to a big gathering with my father’s side of my family in over two decades. When I was a teenager, there was a banquet, a cookout, and hot dogs were served, with maybe a game or two of kickball and spades long into the night. Now, there were lip-sync contests, hashtags denoting our celebration, prizes, and conversations about Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton.
Near the end of the banquet the first night, my older cousin Willie, who swears he invented everything from brake lights to wave brushes, did what he does every time he sees me. He started making presumed African tribal sounds, exaggerating the syllables in my name, and talking about how my father — who was a member of the Republic of New Afrika and was working in Zaire when I was born — should have sent a more American name over, like “Keith” or “Kevin.” Willie didn’t stop joking until I asked him to show me pictures of his new dog. When Willie pulled up a picture of his 180-pound Mastiff on his phone, I asked him why he chose to keep such a huge dog inside. “You know I got felonies,” he told me. “I can’t carry guns no more.”
Willie’s words took me back to a few weeks earlier, when I interviewed my Grandmama for a new book project I’m working on called Heavy. I had asked her why she covered her face when she got nervous, and why she wore wigs all the time when her real hair was so beautiful.
“Choices,” she told me. “Ain’t nothing wrong with black people on earth having choices. And I can’t let no man, not even my grandbaby, choose my choice for me. These white folk don’t think we deserve no choices, so we got to make healthy choices everywhere we can.”
I thought about the tense and meat of stories on both sides of my family. Always past. Always present. Always looking forward. Always loving backward. Always direct. Always slant. I wondered if the same discursive force that made our lies sound true, made us punctuate our truths with, “Stop lying.” How much of how we talked, listened, loved, and lied was American? How much was African? How much of it was the Mississippi in us?
I pledge to perpetually reckon with the possibility that there will never be any liberty, peace, and justice for all unless we accept that America, like Mississippi, is not clean.
Most of us had no idea where, specifically, in Africa we were from, but we knew we were the old and young descendants of African mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters brought to Mississippi to serve the economic and moral needs of powerful white folk. We knew we were not brought here to be equally protected under the law. We knew we were brought here to be subservient, to be hardworking, and to die.
In every pocket of the banquet hall, the reunion was packed with survivors: black Mississippians who showed up to reckon, dance, laugh, lie, and talk new memories into old bodies. I understood that night that these reunions were our attempt at remembering, feeling, and reimagining American conceptions of family, freedom, and winning.
One of my father’s brothers, Uncle Billy — a Vietnam veteran who did most of the planning for the reunion — wanted to talk politics before leaving the ballroom.
I told him that rich white folk got richer under President Obama and poor white folk got their jobs back and got more access to insurance than they ever had in their lives. “Obama is the best president white Americans will ever have, and most of them still hate on him,” I said. “Black folk catch hell and get one or two speeches every year telling us to be more responsible, and we still love the man. It’s just bent.”
My uncle stood there still without blinking. “Yeah, you’re right,” he finally said. “But if Obama is still talking, that means they ain’t kill him. If they killed him, we likely to all be dead. Sound like a win to me.”
I asked Uncle Billy if he was talking about metaphorical death.
“Symbols matter, nephew,” he said. “Obama still being alive is a win for us. This America.”
… with liberty and justice for all.
A few weeks later, I watched patriotic football fans burn the jersey of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. During preseason games in late August and early September, Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem because of the nation’s lack of commitment to liberty and justice for black Americans. Like Kaepernick, I do not stand for the Star Spangled Banner or the Pledge of Allegiance, though our reasons differ slightly.
My first whoopping in a Mississippi public school happened in third grade because I refused to stand and recite the Pledge. The American flag in our classroom hung right next to the state flag, its confederate battle symbol always in eye’s view. I didn’t know much as a third grader, but I knew that I was from Jackson, home to thousands of black American freedom fighters who never went abroad to fight. Those wonderful soldiers strategized, organized, and battled against the most patriotic, morally monstrous Americans on the face of Earth for me to be free. I still sit during the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance because they dared to love me and themselves when morally monstrous patriotic white folk with American flags, Confederate flags, and Mississippi State flags showed them that loving black Americans was a murderous offense.
The same reason I choose not to stand for our pledge or anthem is strangely why I still haven’t taken down the American flag flying outside my new house. It looks, to me at least, like every American flag on Earth should look: beat down, bleeding, fading, weak, tearing apart, barely held together, absolutely stanky, and self-aware.
American symbols and American choices matter. I have no idea how long I’ll choose live in this neighborhood. I have no idea what’s going to happen to the neighborhood when or if I encourage more black folks to move in if I stay. Every day that I live here, I will choose to fly the American flag out there now or the alternative Stennis state flag. Some days I will choose to fly a red, black, and green freedom flag. Other days, I will choose to fly no flag at all. No matter what flag I choose to fly outside or inside of my house, many white Americans and white Mississippians will insist that their black folk, Mexicans, and Muslims remain passive, patriotic, and grateful for the limited choices we’ve been given.
I am a black Mississippian. I am a black American. I pledge to never be passive, patriotic, or grateful in the face of American abuse. I pledge to always thoughtfully bite the self-righteous American hand that thinks it’s feeding us. I pledge to perpetually reckon with the possibility that there will never be any liberty, peace, and justice for all unless we accept that America, like Mississippi, is not clean. Nor is it great. Nor is it innocent.
I pledge that white Mississippians and white Americans will never dictate who I choose to be or what symbols I choose imbue with meaning. I pledge to not allow American ideals of patriotism and masculinity to make me hard, abusive, generic, and brittle. I pledge to messily love our people and myself better than I did yesterday. I pledge to be the kind of free that makes justly winning and gently losing possible. I pledge to never ever confuse cowardice with courage. I pledge allegiance to the Mississippi freedom fighters who made all my pledges possible. I pledge allegiance to the baby Mississippi liberation fighters coming next.
This is a pledge of allegiance to my United States of America, to my Mississippi. Raggedy or not, this is a pledge to my home. Are y’all standing up?