Symbols matter
September 21, 2016 7:29 AM   Subscribe

What I Pledge Allegiance To. "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." -- Author Kiese Laymon, Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi

Also by Dr. Laymon
* How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance
* My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK
* How they do in Oxford. NPR on this essay:
"Laymon, a Mississippi native, made a promise to himself as a child that he would never say the nation's pledge of allegiance at any place that prominently displayed the Confederate flag — a promise he had to finally break this fall when he attended his first football game at the University of Mississippi. Ole Miss is a storied football program with a messy racial past and that is completely awash in Confederate symbols. The team's name is the Rebels; its mascot, up until very recently, was "Colonel Reb"; the Confederate flag takes up a full quadrant of the state's official banner, which is waved around triumphantly by fans at the team's games.

Laymon casts an ambivalent eye on that imagery — what kind of self-respecting black person plays for and roots for a school where Rebel flags wave excitedly? — even as he finds himself swept up in a game in which the Rebels demolish a visiting team by nearly 70 points. It's a great, thorny exploration of the sacrifices we make to belong to a community."

Previously on MetaFilter
* How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance
* Kiese Laymon may be the best writer and curator in a generation
posted by zarq (19 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
 
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.

Holy crap, this is absolutely true. I am appropriately stunned by how this sentence is everyday and prosaic.

Thanks for this FPP.
posted by Kitteh at 7:42 AM on September 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


But if Obama is still talking, that means they ain’t kill him.

Wow.

My mother was livid the other day when, over brunch discussion, I casually mentioned I don't say the pledge of allegiance, or do anything when the national anthem plays. She didn't seem to understand that my choice not to do these things is as patriotic to me as her choice to do them is patriotic to her. We just have very different ideas of what we should be loyal to.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:51 AM on September 21, 2016 [11 favorites]


the article about the Vassar ID is intense and mind blowing.

A few summers later, right in front of Main Building, two security guards stopped me for walking past the President’s house without identification. They threatened to call the Poughkeepsie police on me. I told the officers, “Fuck you” and “Show me your ID” for a number of reasons, but mostly because I’d sold one of them a car a few years ago, and Vassar’s security officers don’t carry guns.
posted by sio42 at 7:58 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


I love reminding people who love, love, LOVE the Pledge of Allegiance that it was written by a socialist and used to be recited while performing the Bellamy Salute.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:59 AM on September 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


America is a great country--no, the greatest country. It's the greatest country because we love Liberty, because we have freedom of speech, and because we're free to adopt and espouse different beliefs. And we show our love of Liberty by robotically chanting whenever anybody waves a flag at us, like we were taught to when we were small; and anybody who does different, we gang up on 'em.

Just one of the many things about The American Patriot that would be hilarious in fiction, but are somehow harder to find funny in actual 3-D.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:12 AM on September 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


One of the comments Dr. Laymon's uncle makes to him in the Allegiance essay is that symbols matter. (I stole that for the title of this post.) In the Ole Miss football essay, the symbolism of the confederate flag is also addressed, but more thoroughly. The quote from Dr. Didla was particularly powerful:
I reach out to Skipp Coon, one of my favorite artists and a native of Jackson, to see what he thinks of the recent conversation around the state flag, a conversation that has been reignited by the murders of nine black folks in a Charleston AME church because they were black.

"They can change all the flags they want," Coon tells me. "It's a false solution. It's also what black people have always gotten. We asked for equality; we got integration. We asked for freedom; we got Reconstruction. They can change that flag and my material reality won't improve one bit."

I'm thinking about Skipp's use of the word "solution" and the letter's use of "fair" and "honorable." If changing the flag is a fair and honorable solution, I'm wondering what the writers of the letter assume the problem is.

Noel Didla, an English professor at Jackson State, introduced me to Skipp three years ago. In Jackson -- and particularly at Jackson State -- Noel, Skipp and a host of other cultural workers are demanding new kinds of structural change. I ask Didla whether she agrees with Skipp.

"I believe symbols have lasting power to immortalize human stories," she answers. "But justice, equity, structural change and truth should be the values on which undoing racism is founded. If not, the victory of bringing down the flag will remain an empty gesture rooted in white supremacy, coupled with white savior complexes. A principled and sustainable paradigm shift and nothing less is what we deserve."

posted by zarq at 8:14 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


That's an amazing piece.
posted by rtha at 8:14 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


...as patriotic to me as her choice to do them is patriotic to her.

That was the argument made by my circle of friends and upstarts as high school seniors at pep rallies in 1984 in Nashville, TN. I wonder were we extraordinary to be tolerated. Most teachers pretended not to notice, but our Civics teacher, one of only two black teachers at our school, politely asked for a basis, nodded his head, and walked away.

I've always been bemused by the seeming paradox of recurrent Congressional battles about burning the flag and that Scouts are taught if a flag touches the ground when taken down, or run up a pole, the official rule is its incineration. According respect is the thrust of both, so they are internally consistent, but...fire!

Textually, the Pledge, when presented as signage, is unique (as far as I can cite) for its vertical orientation that I believe in an effort to aid memorization. We supposedly learn and memorize so many things in primary school, but the Pledge alone is so rendered. It's subtle and like a list, given margin as a poem might be. A little subliminal, if you ask me. Like advertising, or fascism.

Its pragmatic is practical-- like a fasces, representing strength through unity.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:41 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Thank you for posting this. I just read Laymon's novel Long Division last month (it is excellent and I recommend the hell out of it), but hadn't gotten to any of his essays yet. "How They Do in Oxford" will be getting a re-read or three.

I'm wondering what it means for me to claim ownership over black culture in Mississippi after having been away the same amount of time I lived there. The moral authority to critique Mississippi generally, and Oxford specifically, definitely belongs to someone. I'm not at all sure that someone is me.

I have similar questions about my time in Mississippi, and no satisfying answers.

"I believe symbols have lasting power to immortalize human stories," she answers. "But justice, equity, structural change and truth should be the values on which undoing racism is founded. If not, the victory of bringing down the flag will remain an empty gesture rooted in white supremacy, coupled with white savior complexes. A principled and sustainable paradigm shift and nothing less is what we deserve."

The flag needs to go. Our Confederate monuments need to go. We need better monuments to replace them. Putting real work into learning and memorializing what really happened is the only way we can keep the change from being an empty one.
posted by asperity at 8:43 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


I read everything this guy writes. thanks for posting. and, if you've never read Long Division, you really should.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:43 AM on September 21, 2016 [7 favorites]


Thank you for this post, this is a great piece. Minor quibble: Kiese Laymon does not have a PhD, so calling him Dr Laymon isn't accurate and would definitely make him uncomfortable.

(He was my professor back in the day.)
posted by thereemix at 9:10 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


Minor quibble: Kiese Laymon does not have a PhD, so calling him Dr Laymon isn't accurate and would definitely make him uncomfortable.

Sorry about that. Thanks for the correction, thereemix!
posted by zarq at 9:15 AM on September 21, 2016


Oh shit he wrote Long Division? That book is aaaaaaamazing. Best SciFi novel I've read in a decade.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:38 AM on September 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


hadn't gotten to any of his essays yet

How to Kill Yourself, etc. is an excellent collection. Laymon deserves to be more widely-read than he is.
posted by praemunire at 9:46 AM on September 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


My mother was livid the other day when, over brunch discussion, I casually mentioned I don't say the pledge of allegiance, or do anything when the national anthem plays. She didn't seem to understand that my choice not to do these things is as patriotic to me as her choice to do them is patriotic to her. We just have very different ideas of what we should be loyal to.

Indeed, contrast this to a place like North Korea where a dictator is in place and to not stand for the anthem or to pledge allegiance to a country/flag results in imprisonment and/or death. The irony of people who recognise that we live in a place where there is the right and freedom to protest or choose not to pledge and yet are consistently criticised for making this choice.
posted by Fizz at 11:03 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm a Mississippian. I love this state dearly. Every time "Mississippi" pops up on here, I get a little nervous. But when I see "mississippi" in conjunction with "Kiese Laymon", I know there will be some major truth. Maybe I'm biased, but I think everyone should come to Mississippi atleast once. Come see what he is talking about.
posted by GreatValhalla at 11:34 AM on September 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


This man ran the P.O. at the University of Mississippi, and said years later, during the days of integration, that if it came to a showdown between the U.S. gov and the state of Mississippi, he would take up arms to defend his state.
posted by Postroad at 3:02 PM on September 21, 2016


That essay gave me chills. Thank you. I'm looking forward to checking out more of his writing.
posted by lazuli at 6:48 PM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I was completely unfamiliar with his work. Thank you.
posted by shoesietart at 10:30 PM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


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