Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Pledge of Allegiance

I heard the Pledge of Allegiance this week for the first time since I left the United States this past summer. As my views toward the Americas change and develop I was surprised to see that my understanding of the Pledge of Allegiance, one of my favourite elements of American culture, had also changed. Here is my Pledge of Allegiance:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

It seems strange to think of my home state, Missouri, as a former slave state. The Missouri Compromise set the stage for a legacy of racism and oppression that the United States has yet to overcome. It is easy to forget that the American economic system, the best in the world, owes its greatness to the toil and labour of African populations. The Emancipation Proclamation was drafted a mere 145 years ago yet I feel so personally divorced from slavery. The Imperialist tradition allows me to create a clear distance between slavery and myself; I am granted the comfort of the American life without consideration of the strife that was coupled with its establishment. Taglines of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” allow me to pretend that I carry no blame. Touring the slave castle of Cape Coast brought me face to face with some of the big questions that I wish I never had to ask myself. The students in my exchange programme were loaded onto a fancy air conditioned bus and driven through the Greater Accra Region until we reached an enigmatic and beautiful castle that looked more like a vacation resort than a building where thousands of Africans saw their last glimpse of their continent. The white edifice was positioned on the top of a small hill that overlooked a port that is currently used for fishing; the demure arches evoked a sense of serenity that hid the cries of history. As we entered the slave chambers we stood in nearly complete darkness where hundreds of Africans were housed for months at a time and forced to lie in a 1.5 feet of human feces, head to toe, until the slave ships arrived to take them to the New World. My colleagues and I walked quietly with our heads low in tacit awe of one of the worst epochs of American and world history. I couldn’t imagine the strength that would be necessary for so many Africans to march weeks in chains to Accra to be stored in the worst of circumstances with people of different tribal origins without a common language.

and to the republic for which it stands

It was easy for us to board our bus for the Hans Cottage Botel where we would swim and drink pineapple juice and begin to forget about the injustice that we had just witnessed. We could forget about child slavery, human trafficking, and exploitative trade issues pretending that oppression ended with the Civil Rights Movement. Why is it so easy for us to oppose the slave trade and so difficult for us to see the blood and chains along the aisles of our local Wal-Mart? How do we declare the practices of our ancestors innocuous yet continue to participate in the exploitative measures of our own generation? How do we convince ourselves that slavery is a problem of the past? I am not sure what it means to be “American” but I believe it has something to do with standing against inequity.

one nation under God, indivisible

On Sunday morning we left the Botel. I’m not quite sure what differentiates a Botel from a motel or a hotel. This particular “botel” had a nature trail, nice restaurant, and live crocodiles surrounding the patio. Some of my friends petted adult crocodiles near the water. Our next stop was Kakum National Park where we went on a canopy walk 250 meters above the ground. We walked along a ladder positioned between sets of trees, holding onto ropes as we swung platform to platform. While we climbed through the canopy we saw some amazing examples of rainforest wildlife, mainly birds and insects. It was amazing to see how dark was the ground layer of the rainforest, with almost all sunlight blocked by the canopy layer. The layers above the canopy were marked by sparse vegetation and very small leaves while the understory fought its way to find a glimpse of sunlight to use for photosynthesis. It was surreal to be surrounded by an ecosystem of which I have only studied. The pictures looked just like those in my textbooks. My colleagues and I hiked along the floor of the rain forest taking time to snap pictures and sing “In the Jungle” and favourites from “The Lion King.” As we carefully placed one foot in front of the other in our climb along the canopy it was astonishing to see my class mates join together through a sense of fear. My partner, Patrick, did nothing to calm my nerves and consistently reminded me of the 250 drop if I were to fall. “You will need those crutches forever if you misstep,” he told me. For one of the first times since we have been in Ghana we all let our guard down as we together experienced something a bit frightening. The relationship that exists between friends in Ghana quickly becomes more intimate than relationships outside of the developing world. Together we have experienced some scary and dangerous things and without each other we may not have had as successful of a journey through. Illness is a constant threat in Ghana and it is important that we inform our friends as to our symptoms such that they can help us to monitor our health. We’ve all been in some pretty vulnerable positions: me stuck in the open sewer, others with Malaria, and others with periods of diarrhea that lasted days. In caring for each other and letting each other see us in other in our most honest state we have become nearly indivisible. My colleagues here have seen an organic version of Judith Rowland that doesn’t often appear in the Western world.

with Liberty and justice for all

As my colleagues and I continue to grow in our academic and personal pursuits I see mature adults emerging from students. I have already gained a greater perspective of the world that we remain with me as I enter my future endeavors of service. I just hope that as we return to campus and to our daily lives: the 30 minute walk to class, the breakfast pineapple, sitting in huge lecture halls, and wishing that we had books to read we wont forget what we saw and learned at the Cape Coast slave castle. Remembering this weekend and what it meant may someday ensure a greater probability of liberty and justice for all.

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