(RNS) — It is a Wednesday. I stand in the front of the auditorium with my students to lead chapel. My breath smells like the coffee I just drank. The American flag is behind my right shoulder. It stands erect, as straight as my students are constantly being told to stand. To the opposite side of the room is a Christian flag.
We begin with a word of prayer. We follow that with a pledge of allegiance.
I say nothing. And when the national anthem comes on next, my hand does not come to my heart.
It’s not a protest. Not really. Not yet. I’m just not feeling it. I’m not compelled by this display of devotion.
The American flag — even the national anthem — they are not always and often cannot be symbols of beauty or bravery or pride for me, for so many of my Black brothers and sisters. They represent a brutal legacy against my people. A legacy we have not only seen with our eyes and felt with our hands, but one that is written on our bodies, woven into our songs, that punctuates our dances and our shouts.
I want to see an aspirational hope in those stars and stripes. But in a country more obsessed with whitewashing the evils of its history than healing the gaping wounds that history created, in a country with only a blind nostalgia for its past and no imagination for a new kind of future, these “patriotic” symbols are no more than salt in those raw wounds.
“Mr. Stew,” one of my students had said to me a few days before, “I don’t feel like raising my hand for the flag.” I asked her why.
“They don’t respect us,” she said. She didn’t have to tell me. I knew who they were. “They killing us,” she said. People are always saying children don’t know what’s going on around them, that somehow the world they’re living in escapes their hearts, their minds, their stomachs. But she knew the difference between they and us, and between those two words existed all types of anger, of heartbreak, of failure and plunder.
“I just don’t want to do it,” she said. “I just don’t feel like it.”
I understood that. I knew what she meant. But I also needed her to know what it could cost such a Black girl in 8th grade, in a Christian private school, to declare the worth of her humanity and do what she could to dislodge American identity from Christian identity.
After chapel, I am called in to the principal’s office.
I should have recognized it then in 2018. I should not have been surprised by today’s absolute panic over critical race theory being taught in schools. This resistance to any talk of race, racism and power is not because of a devotion to Jesus or a devotion to country. It is ultimately a devotion to white supremacy. And when ideologies of power and purity rise to the level of religious devotion, they are that much harder to dismantle.
In 1963, James Baldwin gave a talk to teachers. “You must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty,” he said, “you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.”
It is not just that Americans have a disordered love for the country, it is that the myth, the powerful myth, could never imagine America as non-white, non-male, non-Christian and non-straight. What passes for American identity, Baldwin said, is a series of myths of American glory, innocence and holiness that are rooted in American whiteness. Myths so powerful, so enduring, so deadly.
For it is in being American that we learn America does not want those who are critical of it, but only citizens who protect the status quo — status quo that is not just apathetic to Black people, but actively hostile against us.
It is not so much that theorizing about systemic racism hurts white people’s feelings as much as it hurts their arrogant ideas of their own centeredness and inherent power and the god-like force they believe themselves to have.
James Baldwin is right: Their ignorance is what gives them power. “And the reason for this ignorance,” he wrote, “is that a knowledge of the role these people played — and play — in American life would reveal more about America to Americans than Americans wish to know.”
And in this regard, education has always been a battlefield. These people are not ignorant: They know that for the oppressed, education and liberation go hand in hand. Whiteness will no longer be able to hide or run or preach or serve or give or pray or write without giving an account for itself and for why its stories must always end in white victory and our stories must end in Black death — in whites ruling and Blacks being ruled.
There is a problem when those who are in control of the education of our children believe teaching about racism and white supremacy is actually more harmful than racism and white supremacy. They would rather live in lies than be free. They would rather the country remain the same than change for the better.
Saidiya Hartman speaks of this time as being a time of slavery: “by which I mean I am living in the future created by it. It is the ongoing crisis of citizenship.” It is a moment when the country refuses to believe or embrace the stories of Black people and the ways in which we have not only survived but made a world for ourselves even as whiteness believed us a curse.
For it is what whiteness has worshipped in its own identity that has many believing critical analysis of race, racism and power is a threat to their faith and their country rather than a pathway to liberation and love.
Today, I am sitting at my desk. My son is playing with his trains as I watch a couple walk up the street. The room smells like lavender and Guatemalan coffee and the mango my son ate earlier. It is so hot outside, the sun burns, and the Georgia heat is unyielding.
I scroll down my twitter thread and I pass a tweet of Dan Crenshaw on Fox News calling for Black Olympian Gwen Berry to be removed from the team, the host talking about how Berry turned her back to the flag, and how we don’t need any more activist athletes. We. That word. The way this country has struggled to include us in their definition of we. I shake my head. Whatever.
My eyes travel back to my son as he plays and then back to these words I’m writing, and I think: What does it mean to be a citizen in a country that renders you invisible?
Today, though, I know better than I did back then. I know what we face. I know what we must become. I know, and it frightens me and makes me sad and makes me sometimes want to go mad. But I also know whiteness — and the rage white people justify and perform — is not my myth or my story or my world or my gospel.
It is the truth, Jesus says, that sets us free. And it is the truth that makes us.
(Danté Stewart is a writer and student at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Connect with him at dantecstewart.com and @stewartdantec. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)