By Cameron Nye (Summer 2022)
The Pledge of Allegiance remains one of the staple creeds of American culture. Originally written in 1892, then revised in 1923 then again in 1953, it remains a patriotic reminder of the ideals Americans strive to live up to. Esther Popel used it in a very different way, contrasting the supposed American paragon with the reality of society in her poem Flag Salute (1934). Popel fragmentized the Pledge of Allegiance, placing horrific stanzas detailing a lynching in between lines of ideological pageantry. By placing the Pledge of Allegiance next to this brutal retelling, Popel was able to demonstrate the two perspectives prevalent in American society, one of lofty principles alongside one of barbaric horror and mistreatment.
Esther Popel was a figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural rebirth and re-identification of African Americans in response to the Jim Crow era. This resurgence lasted through the 1920s and 30s, allowing them to define themselves and speak against their struggles publically through art. It provided an outlet against the oppressive regime of Jim Crow, the series of laws enacted to hegemonize African Americans. The Jim Crow era was infamous for its lynchings, a subject frequently examined within black literature. It is the main story of Popel’s poem Flag Salute.
Popel juxtaposed the pledge of allegiance with her retelling of a lynching to display the stark contrast of American ideals with American reality. For example, Popel wrote, ” ‘And to the Republic for which it stands’– And then they hanged his body to a tree, Below the window of the county judge.” The excerpt from the pledge shows the republican ideals that the United States is supposed to appeal to. All citizens are supposed to have the right of due process, to a impartial trial that will guarantee them fair treatment under the law. The next line shows the reality, in which a black man is denied those rights, next to the establishment where he was supposed to be given those rights. This distinct incongruity displays the hypocrisy running rampant in American ideology. Popel used this strategy throughout her poem, placing lines of American idealism next to instances of discrepancy. She wrote, ” ‘With Liberty–and Justice’ — They cut the rope in bits and passed them out…” Popel exposing how the crowd took souvenirs of the appalling occasion, how they essentially took away his dignity and justice, serves to unveil the true horror of American society and how it contradicts itself. She is extremely effective in getting that point across, cementing her poem as a telling exposè of Jim Crow.
Esther Popel’s usage of the pledge of allegiance directly confronts Americans who do not live up to their supposed ideals. They can say they believe in the principles of liberty and justice for all, but their actions prove otherwise. Lynchings remained as prominent subject matter for the remainder of the Harlem Renaissance, eventually making its way to the American mainstream. It was not until 2022, with the passage of the Emmett Till Anti Lynching Act, that American ideals were finally upheld the way that the Pledge of Allegiance outlines them.