Every morning at Raines Elementary School in Jackson, Mississippi, all us black third graders were forced to stand and pledge allegiance to the stitched stars and bold bars of the American and Mississippi flags.
One October evening, I asked Mama if I had to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
One October evening, Mama said no.
I went to school the next day and sat my husky Toughskins in a wobbly desk while my black classmates stood and pledged allegiance as they were told.
When my black classmates were done pledging allegiance, my white teacher took me out in the hall and told me to bend over and touch my toes. I told my white teacher that I did not want to pledge allegiance to those flags because those flags did not stand up for us.
I did not tell my white teacher that Mama said I did not have to stand because I did not want my white teacher to call my black house. If my white teacher called my black house, Mama would come to my classroom and cuss my white teacher out. Having your black mama cuss out your white teacher in your classroom was only funny later. In the moment, it was the most shameful day of the school year.
I bent over and touched my toes.
My white teacher gave me five firm licks with her wooden paddle before sending me to the principal’s office, where my white principal bent me over a table and gave me five more licks with his paddle made of fiberglass. There was no talk of politics or patriotism from my white teacher or white principal.
Follow directions, they told me. Be a grateful black American, I heard.
I did not tell Mama what happened until the next morning. Instead of walking to school alone, Mama walked with me. Our Nova was out of gas, but she wanted to talk to my white teacher and white principal. When we got to school, Mama made me stand outside while she went into the building.
She came outside to get me twenty minutes later.
Mama said that I never had to pledge allegiance to anything or anyone who refused to pledge allegiance to us. Just know, she said, that there will be consequences for doing what you know is right, and one day I will not be here to fight for you.