Saturday, January 10, 2009
Not only will I be going to the Inauguration next week, but I'll be audible!
The strange things that the mind holds in reserve ...
Somewhere between the years of 11 and 13(dated by the image of the Elmhurst Jr. High School auditorium that crops up in the remembering) there was a blinding insight that has been a major factor in the becoming of Betty for over a lifetime. This had to be associated with the absolutism of childhood combined with an awakening sense of social responsibility. The insight was life-altering and has been incorporated into a value system that persists to this day.
I recall that it was in that school assembly while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance that it hit me with the force of revealed "truth." I found myself instantly falling silent at the words, "...with liberty and justice for all." Not only that, but I continued to mouth the words while holding back the sounds. I recognized the phrase as absolutely untrue. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the words didn't include me or anyone like me, surely not my dearest friend and grandfather, dark-skinned Papa George. I also realized, instinctively, that those young classmates standing around me with hand over heart and the piety of youth didn't know that. That the teacher whom I adored and who was leading the pledge -- was unaware, as well. I didn't know at that point where the blame should lie, but it wasn't with anyone here in this hall. That I was certain of, and I had no wish to dishonor their patriotism by allowing them to be witness to my dissent. I only knew that somewhere I'd read an anonymous quote (perhaps in a tiny box in the center of a page in the Readers' Digest) the words, "Every day in every way what I am to be I am now becoming. Words to live by" -- and with the passion of a small well-read and uncompromising little girl to support it. I would not participate in the lie. Not then -- and not ever.
Later I would extend the practice to falling silent at the words, "...under God" and not because I'd intellectually worked my way out of religious orthodoxy; that would have required a far higher level of sophistication than I could claim, but because I found the words non-inclusive of other belief systems (whose God?), and was inserted into the Pledge for all the wrong reasons. But that came much later and from a far more reasoned place.
So that left two "audible" blanks in my personal pledge to my country though I continued to rise in respect and participate to the extent that my values would allow. I'd never discussed this with anyone and presumed that I was alone in this practice of censoring and deleting appropriate to my personal beliefs.
On Inauguration Day in this year 2009, I will stand and (for the first time since childhood) I will bring sound to the Pledge. I'll take my place as one of "We the People," and I'll "promote the general welfare" and "form a more perfect Union", and boldly proclaim my part in the re-creation of all that may restore our once glorified and now badly tarnished image as the undisputed leader of the nations of the free world. And those words held suspect for so long will finally ring true.
...and I'll do all that while witnessing the swearing in of the nation's first black president -- completely awed by the arc of all of our American lives that has brought us to this place of reconciliation and patriotism of a kind that now begins to make sense to those of us who have been silent and/or conditional in expressing it.
As I watch that historic national rite on Inauguration Day from the stands, I will be the only member of that audience of flag-pledging Americans who will know that I've uttered those words
"With Liberty and Justice for All!"
aloud, for the first time in over 70 years, and that I will be doing so as the full-fledged member of
"We, the people!"