Close Reading on Popel Poem

By Etsub Taye (Summer 2021)


Deconstructing the Pledge of Allegiance

In 1934, Esther Popel wrote “Flag Salute” in response to the lynching of George Armwood, a young Black man, who was accused of assaulting a White elderly woman. The legacy of Protest Literature of the Enslavement and Antebellum Era is showcased in Popel’s work through themes of inequality and physical trauma. But more significantly she explored the idea of the “Double Consciousness” which W.E.B DuBois defined in The Souls of Black Folk as  “two unreconciled strivings” to be both Black and American without fear of repercussion. Popel does this by juxtaposing the ideals of the United States with the realities of its Black citizens using language structure and vivid sensory details.

Esther Popel
Esther Popel (Dickinson College Archives)

Popel used language structure to emphasize the stark difference between the ideals of the US and the treatment of Black individuals. Popel chose the most patriotic expression–the “Pledge of Allegiance”– to advance her message. By alternating between the pledge and the progression of a Black man’s lynching, Popel highlighted the hypocrisy of the nation and its people.  For instance, under “And to the Republic for which it stands” Popel described how the mob hanged the Black man under the “window of the county judge” who was “pleading” against it. As a result, Popel showcased that although the country promotes a fair and just prosecution that it did not apply for Black folk. The law did not protect Black bodies. Additionally, under “With Liberty–and Justice” Popel wrote about how the noose used to hang the Black man was cut and distributed among the men as “souvenirs.” She continued by asserting that the teeth of the man were put on golden chains to wear around the necks of the women. By describing the inhumanity of reducing a man into a souvenir, Popel showed her audience a lack of freedom and justice. Furthermore, the grotesque description of the lynching placed in conversation with the pledge undercuts the ideals of the nation. Popel, as a result, rendered the message of “Liberty” and “Justice” as faulty. Although Popel is not explicit, she, like her predecessors of the Enslavement and Antebellum Era, is subversive. She deliberately titled her poem as “Flag Salute” which is a gesture of respect to the nation. However, she uses the “Flag Salute” as an oxymoron which she questions repeatedly. 

Popel used sensory details to provoke strong emotions from her audience. She does this by first reducing the Black body to a lifeless object by describing it as a “sack of meal.” By objectifying the Black body she achieves two goals. First, she communicated the feelings of the mob that the Black body is worthless which justifies their inhumanity. She then vividly described the “battered human flesh,” “brutish, raucous howls,” and the “reeking gasoline” to place the reader into the setting. By using these details the author illustrated for the reader the grotesqueness of lynching. Popel then takes this horrifying scene and describes it as a “spectacle” as if it were a celebration or a ritual that encompassed entire families. In doing so she made a commentary on how ingrained violence against Black Americans ran. Simultaneously, Popel used these same details to distance herself, perhaps as a trauma response. She maintains a passive voice in order to show a lack of agency.  It is “they” who drag the body and “they” who lit the fire.

 Popel’s notoriety comes mostly from her poems. However, it is interesting to note that the work that she is celebrated for today was labeled “objectionable” and unfit for curriculums in 1936 by Washington D.C’s Board of Education. [1] Even today activists face similar backlash when using symbols of the US as a way to protest. Take for example Colin Kaepernick who kneeled during the anthem at the NFL and was blackballed. Yet, despite the consequences, both figures were successful in showcasing the inequities of the nation. 

Excerpt for Esther Popel’s “Flag Salute.” Read by Etsub Taye


[1] Roy Wilkins, “‘Objectionable Matter’ in the Crisis,” The Crisis, (Illinois: The Crisis Publishing Company, May 1936) 136-138.