If You Can Keep ItPosted: January 15, 2020
Fifty years ago, give or take a year or two or three, I was in high school in a small Mississippi Delta town. I was in Concert Chorus. It was almost a cult in its own right, set apart from the others, with special privileges, like hanging out together in the chorus room during lunch break and playing our signature “Heart and Soul” in many variations on the piano until we ran it in the ground. We also presented public programs and sang songs dear to our hearts and values—songs that would last a lifetime in some little corner of our hearts.
One Christmas, we sang the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah to a packed town audience: “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.” It was a proud moment, and I still remember that night.
With spring and the coming around of early daffodils in the South came a season of patriotism. This was the time of Vietnam, a time of distrust of our government, a time of protests and rallies against war from those who deemed it wrong…and it seems after years went by, they were proven right. Against the killing of what would eventually be sixty thousand boys, men, who answered the call because they knew they’d have to or they were drafted to go. These were our classmates, our boyfriends, our friends’ boyfriends, and the boy across the street…who didn’t come home. Instead, two soldiers arrived in a black government car, stepped in unison up the front sidewalk, and told his mama he was dead.
That spring, we in the Concert Chorus put on our navy skirts and pants and white shirts and traveled to other schools, singing patriotic songs. We wore silly little crepe banners in red, white, and blue across our chests. Red, white, and blue. Like our flag.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands….”
I remember the Friday we went to Clarksdale to sing—a forty-five-minute drive to the north Delta. I remember the smell of Bob Neal’s black leather letter jacket as I sat beside him in the back seat of somebody’s car full of chorus kids. I remember someone had told us to be sure and stop at a hamburger drive-in just outside town. Be sure to order barbecued potato chips, they said, and see what you get. This was a time of plain potato chips only. But chips dusted with a little dried barbecue had just come out on the market. That drive-in wasn’t aware. And sure enough, with our order came a red and white cardboard tray full of plain potato chips with liquid barbecue sauce poured over them. We laughed and laughed and thought those owners were so backward.
We sang our hearts out that day—songs I still remember today and hold dear and know all the words to and take them all to heart. One of those songs was “This Is My Country,” composed in 1940, a year before Japan bombed us at Pearl Harbor and we entered a world war that my daddy fought in.
“What diff’rence if I hail from North or South
Or from the East or West?
My heart is filled with love for all of these.
I only know I swell with pride and deep within my breast
I thrill to see Old Glory paint the breeze.
This is my country! Land of my birth!
This is my country! Grandest on earth!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold,
For this is my country to have and to hold.”
Now, we’re in another time of divisiveness and rallies promoting separation of our own American people, and we’re in another long, long war. It’s hard to even finish the pledge now: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That’s not true. I’m sorry, but it’s not. Maybe it never really was. We are divided, and we don’t give liberty to all. Nor do half of us honor the flag, the Constitution, and our own dear beloved America above one man.
This could be the year… This could be the month… That we lose our democracy. That we decide to dismiss truth, place one man above the law, deny our oaths and pledges to the flag and the Constitution, and pledge loyalty to one man.
Have we got a republic or a monarchy? Benjamin Franklin was asked this at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He answered: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”