When I began my own little home school experiment, we started off our mornings with the Pledge of Allegiance, partly because I was trying to foster familiarity of routine for the girls and partly because my Irish husband needs to learn it in order to become a citizen. I had a little American flag proudly displayed next to my globe (it made me feel so teacherish and patriotic!) at the front of our schoolroom, which is really just our dining area, and we faced it with our hands on hearts, recited the Pledge, and then sang "America the Beautiful” (which we all know should really be our national anthem), sat down, and commenced our day’s lessons.
But on merely the second day of including my husband (remember, he is Irish, so rebellion comes naturally to him, as does an unusually strong sarcastic streak), we had to stop allowing him to participate because he is an atheist. Lest that sound like narrow-mindedness, I should qualify this exclusion… Although I don’t have quite the strength of conviction to be one myself, I love many an atheist (especially him) and respect them for their fervour; my agnosticism is just so much less work, so I’m really just a lazy atheist myself. But it was rather disruptive to our little routine, so I was somewhat put out. The problem was this: apparently my prospective citizen was unhappy pledging allegiance to God in the same breath as he is pledging it to America — he has a point there; separation of church and state, and all that — and this manifested itself in some rather rude (and hilarious) rewording of the Pledge which made the girls fall about laughing and rendered them unable to say the Pledge henceforth without giggling. (To whoever is reading this in some government office where they monitor potential citizens’ behaviour — because in all the recent dismantling and defunding of so many vital government offices and services, I am certain that particular team is nevertheless still intact — I hope you will still let him in; freedom of speech and all that. To our teachers, I apologise now and often for the feral people we are returning into your care this autumn, or whenever we hand these small, wild people back to you.)
So, really, I am not casting aspersions on my principled-but-mischievous husband; I giggled too. In fact I also feel a little ambivalent about talking to flags and how this may or may not translate into patriotism. Please do not misunderstand me: I love my country, despite (and indeed even more so because of) spending nearly half my life on the other side of the planet. That was not a judgement, it was just how things unfurled. I missed so many things while I was gone (more on that another time), and when we moved back to the US, it was with deep and true emotion that I joined in with the Pledge of Allegiance (or the “Rallegiance” as my older daughter called it, aged seven and utterly new to these strange American customs) at the weekly Friday flag ceremony at my daughters’ school. Indeed, so emotional did I become that sunglasses became de rigeur (luckily they are anyway in sunny southern California) because I would inevitably well up with tears every time we said the final lines together.
However, not long after we returned to the US in summer 2017, horror stories about the US-Mexican border began emerging. I was not unfamiliar with the heartbreaking poverty on the southern side of that border: not only had I read much literature about life there, but I had also volunteered in orphanages in Tijuana during high school, and seen firsthand the hungry faces and sad eyes that are the reality of daily life for many there. But decades of injustice and poverty since the 1990s had plunged Mexico into ever more perilous times, and the country to the north slid further and further to the right, while the wealthy on both sides of the border got wealthier, through means foul and rarely fair. This was a new low.
The world learned of the horror of the detention camps forming along that border, of the nightmare of children wrested from their uncomprehending parents’ arms, and of the increasing threats from a powerful government whose words and actions ironically echoed ever more strongly those of Latin American dictators of days gone by, while sounding ever less like the leadership of a free democratic nation built by immigrants. In a perverse elision of historical paradigms (liberty and justice to the north / corruption and danger to the south), the world seemed to be turning on its head. My heart broke and all my doubts deepened. What was happening to the poor and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free? Where was Lady Liberty now? And what of those whose parents had made it north in years gone by, only to have their futures and even their very lives thrown into doubt? What of their dreams?
I have been a migrant: crossing borders, papers clutched in hand, lining up to report to police stations, having paperwork thrust back at me to be resubmitted to a different office in a different way, being temporarily and accidentally illegal in another country while we desperately figured out the right way to transform me into a legal entity once more, learning (sometimes tearfully and fearfully and painfully) how deeply divergent the spirit and the letter of the law are when love crosses continental boundaries and families are broken up by artificial borders and arbitrary laws. Even within this country, for citizens who were born and raised and whose families have lived here for multiple generations and do not have to contend with the insanity of immigration law, life is often not fair, and the matrix of poverty and disenfranchisement and injustice entraps too many people in a cycle of desperation.
I sense myself falling into cliche here, but I am keenly aware that it is beyond my power and knowledge to capture the truth of the lives of those who fall afoul of laws and courts that are not always just, because there are so many who are better versed than I both in railing against and in battling injustice, in all its myriad guises. But things seem to go from bad to so much worse, and those tropes are all too true: it’s worth noting that I wrote most of this piece a few months ago, well before Ahmaud Arbery was — finally — in the national news, and we were reminded that a black man still can’t go jogging in broad daylight in the “wrong” part of town. As with the inversion of old expectations that we are seeing at the US-Mexican border, the stereotype of what might constitute the notion of the dangerous part of town is all too dependent on your perspective: the places — be it a neighbourhood or a country — that are perceived to be safe and free for everyone are, in tragic fact, only safe for a privileged few.
I promise I won’t get up on my soapbox too often; I never intended for this to be a platform for socio-political rants. But really, sometimes these things are just too much. Sometimes my heart is too heavy. Sometimes I cannot keep silent. So this is actually also about compassion and kindness, and their heartbreaking scarcity at a broad, public level in this country. This is about a sense of powerlessness and outrage at the flagrant contravening of laws designed to protect the vulnerable, at the blatant brushing aside of the legal right of children and asylum seekers to enter this country, at the shocking violations of the legal right of anyone and everyone not to be murdered for any reason, but especially not by reason of the colour of their skin and especially not by those who are supposed to protect them. This is about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and countless others, who should be alive but are not.
This is about a country that is broken, perhaps beyond repair. This is about how those who are supposed to lead us have failed. This is about knowing that we can be so much better than what we currently are as a nation. So when I stand there, hand on my heart, looking up at the Stars and Stripes, in my head I say instead: “with liberty and justice for some.”