When I was a child, I attended the same school for second thru eighth-grade, having lived in the smallest in California county by population. For perspective, Los Angelos County is home to 10,098,052 people, whereas Alpine County is home to 1,146. We had no high school, and the snowpack of the Sierra Nevadas cut us off from those in the Lake Tahoe Basin. So, we bussed an hour out of the mountains into the Carson Valley, where we attended high school in Minden, Nevada. I know what it feels like to be bussed an unwelcomed. And yet…
I can remember the call to order every morning at Diamond Valley Elementry School for seven years. When the morning bell rang, we all proceeded to our classrooms where grades were combined — first/second, third/fourth, fifth/sixth, seventh/eighth. Kindergarteners had their own room and only attended half a day.
No matter our grades or rooms, we all began the day the same way with right hands over hearts, facing a small wall-mounted American flag, and reciting along with our teachers:
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Justice for all.
From the time I was a small child, before school, I loved my country. I fell in love with my nation at the Bolado Park annual rodeo where four generations of my family rode, three of them bull-riders (I tackled goats and showed horses). The thrill of the rodeo was the opening parade of contestants where buckaroos rode together under the colors of their ranch on their outfit’s best stock with all the silver polished on bridles and spurs. The Rodeo Queen led us behind the American flag. We gathered in the arena, facing the grandstands, the flag in front of us. Then someone sang, “Oh, say can you see…” Our nation’s anthem.
In school, my Washo friends gave me a different perspective on our small county. I learned stories and sought out places where their ancestors had fished and made pine nut flour, finding petroglyphs and grinding holes in granite boulders not far from my house. I loved this ancient history as much as the pioneer history. Driving to my dad’s logging camp, I used to count the number of depressions where Silver Mountain City once stood, now nothing but sunken cellars and a stone wall that was a jailhouse. As a teenager, I helped preserve county documents and recorded archeological sites.
To me, my country was rodeo, history, and education. It was the land of the free and the brave. It was purple mountain majesty.
My patriotism reflected a small-world experience of the American flag. I didn’t put expectations on the flag, but I know I felt proud to be an American, singing along with Lee Greenwood, “Where at least I know I’m free!” Sitting in the saddle or standing with my classmates, I felt a deep appreciation for my country. I recited every school day for twelve formative years, “…and justice for all.” It never occurred to me as a child that the words were untrue.
Decades later, I try to imagine what it was like to grow up reciting those words in school only to experience a different world. I grew up in post-Civil Rights America. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended states’ segregation. I thought my childhood was diverse — I grew up among Portagee and Mexican ranchhands, first and second-generation immigrants. The town’s librarian was British, and a local family adopted two children from Korea. My favorite teacher was Apache, and one of my classmates was Hawaiian. I attended a school funded as reservation education, but it never occurred to me, as a child, to question why there were no black students.
What did I think, that “they” lived elsewhere? Happily? Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance just like me?
Considering that I got to feel like a patriot beneath the red, white, and blue as a child indicates that my own ancestry passed into privilege. I dislike that word, by the way, but it flags a social truth that being white in America is an automatic advantage. Getting to love my nation and believe in “justice for all” is an advantage. Although I dislike the use of labels, let’s sit with its social discomfort of white privilege a moment and examine its current definition:
Social privilege is a special, unearned advantage or entitlement, used to one’s own benefit or to the detriment of others. These groups can be advantaged based on social class, age, disability, ethnic or racial category, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion.
Groups, tribes, clans — throughout history, people have pooled resources for advantages to survive. Nothing can be crueler to a human being than another human being. So, when will we learn that leveraging advantages takes away from others so we can have our gain? Can we use our current advantage to lift others up? Can we meet on common ground where no one group has a high spot? What does justice for all look like?
In a NYT podcast series called 1619, host Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses her irritation as a young person with the American flag her black father maintained despite low-paying jobs, no recognition for his military service, and living in a state with high violence against blacks. By high school, she said,
“This big pristine American flag flying in the front of our yard was deeply embarrassing to me and I didn’t understand why he would feel that much love for a country that clearly did not love him. I felt this way all through high school. I was no longer standing for the national anthem. I had stopped saying the pledge allience. And really, throughout most of my adult life, I mean clearly I know I’m American, I was born here, every family member for generations back that I know were all born here, but I never felt that I could claim fully that I was an American.”
That is the shadow life to my own. While I was feeling something as a young American, my black compatriots were feeling nothing. Yet, Nikole goes on to shift her thinking, to come to understand her father’s relationship with the flag. It’s a powerful and authentic look at the formation of a “free” nation whose declaration of independence failed to uphold its core principles. She began to realize that black people like her father believed in the possibility of American ideals.
No longer can I deny what my country is — a nation built on the backs of race-slavery. Not just slavery, but slavery based on a color divide. How does that happen? You have to dehumanize the role of the slave. In doing so, you equally dehumanize the role of the slaver. The society that accepts slavery, putting profit before people dehumanizes itself. The government that establishes law to hold this system in place is injust.
Thus the cycle began with the first boatload of African slaves to American soil. Dark-skinned men and women were easy to classify as others. Privilege went to those who were Christian, white, and land-holders. Never mind whose land they had. In America, justification substituted justice. You cannot have genuine respect for people when you justify stealing land, stealing a workforce, and establishing wealth that demands more land and more workforce. The trickery involved is mind-blowing. The wealthy could not settle lands further west on their own, so they set up governmental acts such as homesteading, and they normalized “manifest destiny.” They convinced the middle class who wanted homes and economic opportunities for their families that they were doing God’s will to swarm like locust, kill the buffalo, and dispossess the tribes.
Generational lies. Societal norms that are abnormal to human nature. Dehumanization. Criminalization. Racism is built in the shadows of institutions that favor the ultimately privileged. The rest of us scramble for scraps of privilege to survive, willing to tear at each other’s throats, so we don’t stop to think about the spell we are under. We place our hands on our hearts and think we are free and just. But we are all chained to this ugliness of slavery, and the whip still cracks over our heads. Think I’m wrong? In America, our masters are the capitalists. We fear economic decline more than we do a deadly virus. Over 100,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, but our masters have us fearing the demise of Wall Street. They gamble with our money, our jobs, our lives.
I love my nation. I love my fellow Americans no matter how broken we might be (or how whole we pretend we are). And we are broken! We are not well. We need to heal. All of us. We need to acknowledge what slavery did to us, how it permeates generations of thinking, feeling, and reacting. If you don’t believe we still employ a slave mentality, consider this: we have called out the National Guard to protect property. I repeat, we have called out the National Guard to protect property. Because looting is a higher crime than murdering black people in America. A black person is a discarded property. Do you see it? Do you see how that is the slave mentality of valuing economic gain over a dehumanized population?
Let me explain to you why black lives matter. Because they are human, too! We are all one human race. Many colors. Many genders. Many sexual orientations. Many different favorite foods. Many sizes. Many ways to express spiritual connections. Many ways to dance. Many voices to sing. Many languages. Many heartaches. Many joys. Justice for all means black lives matter. Fuck off if you’re going to tell me white lives matter, too. I know they do because I have experienced the empowerment of knowing my life has value. I have held my hand over my heart and believed every word I recited to the flag. I’m white. I’ve been bullied, I’ve known shaming because of my body type, I’ve experienced persecution as a pagan and unfriending as a believer of Christ. I have secrets I won’t tell you. I have fears. But never have I known what it is to be black.
I write this as law enforcement shoot rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas canister at people of all color in my nation this week. Some are claiming white supremacists are agitating the protests. Others say it’s Antifa extremists and suggest that even foreign powers could take advantage of the chaos. Most protestors gather peacefully despite what the media might be showing. In Minnesota, so many have gathered as to overwhelm the entire police force. The root cause, no matter the extremism slithering into the violent expression is slavery.
Emancipation is when black lives have the same American experiences as white lives. When we express genuine respect for one another and acknowledge the mutual wounds of slavery, then we can heal together. Then we can say all lives matter. Then a black child in a small classroom in Anytown, America, can feel the same pride I once did reciting, “…and justice for all.” If you want to know what you can do, please read, For Our White Friends Desiring to Be Allies by Courtney Ariel, read black literature, and support diverse voices in writing. The compelling nature of our weekly collections is rooted in the comingling of diverse voices. All are welcome to write here!
And there is a powerful message in Jimmy Kimmel’s post from May 29. Please watch this through to the end. You will see a scripted video that shows the power of a human story. I also recommend that you watch the documentary The Thirteenth. It’s available on Netflix. Let’s be the ones who live up to the perfect ideals of our imperfect founding.
June 4, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about justice for all. It does not have to take place in America. Injustice exists anywhere. What is the story behind justice for all? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by June 9, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our most current weekly Flash Fiction Challenge to enter.
The Injustice of Forgotten History by Charli Mills
Heat from the foundries blasted Big John every day. Sweat froze to his body when he walked home to Cliff where Sweet Mo had stew and thimbleberry cobbler waiting. He wore massive leather boots, tailor-made because he could afford them. Mo sewed colorful calico dresses and on Sunday they lifted the rafters with Jesus and friends at the African Methodist Episcopal. When the nation passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, escaped slaves and freed people knew slave-hunters would avoid the rough and remote Copper Country.
One day, when there’s justice for all, we’ll record these erased black histories.