Opinions

Wayland ’18.5: The unpatriotic history of the American Flag

By
Arts and Culture Critic
Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The American flag’s historical current passes through Boston in 1976. Of course, the story doesn’t begin there, but if you want to understand Colin Kaepernick, President Trump and the stars and stripes, start in Boston with the busing desegregation protests.

Stanley Forman’s camera captured the moment of interest, now forever etched into the historical ledger. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, “The Soiling of Old Glory,” is staggeringly atemporal — the setting could just as easily be Charlottesville today or Selma 50 years ago. The photograph shows Ted Landsmark, a black lawyer and civil rights activist, struggling to free himself from the grip of an anti-busing rioter while Joseph Rakes, a white man, frenziedly charges at his defenseless body. Rakes’ expression of white rage is palpable but unexceptional. Rather, it is his choice of weapon — a pole bearing the American flag — that contextualizes “The Soiling of Old Glory” at the intersection of citizenship, patriotism and race. The flagpole is a lance in Rakes’ hands, and the photograph’s concluding implication is horrifyingly explicit: a black body and life impaled upon the symbolic spear of a nation propagated by the ritual of white violence.

National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick reignited the memory of “The Soiling of Old Glory” when he dropped to a knee during the national anthem of a pre-season game in September 2016. Trump further fanned those flames, insinuating that Kaepernick should find a different country of residence. Trump also urged NFL owners to deny employment to “son of a bitch” players who disrespected the national anthem, the flag and America itself. To be clear, Kaepernick was not disrespecting the country; he was protesting racial injustice. To insist that Kaepernick’s stance is anti-American is to participate in a troubling rhetoric that deprives Kaepernick of his own citizenship. But in specifically targeting the flag and the national anthem, Kaepernick left his membership in the body politic vulnerable to examination. The flag has always been a technology of power. It has always shaped and outlined citizenship claims. It has always celebrated some while spurning others under its colors. Thus, to understand how and why we have arrived at this particular moment, it is important to first look at the cultural legacy of the American flag and how it has long been used to perpetuate racism.

We began in Boston, but the story started with Francis Scott Key in 1814. The flag had existed in the cultural canon for nearly a half century, but Key’s Star-Spangled Banner articulated the basic lens through which the nation would consume its most powerful symbol. Inspired by the resilience of American troops to hoist the flag despite relentless shelling during the Battle of Baltimore, Key penned a series of verses to celebrate the flag as an emblem of an idealized democratic nation. But Key was a slaveholder, and his vision of the flag is colored by that positionality. Key wrote a third verse that was later eliminated from the anthem’s popular reproductions and has only now reemerged in our cultural consciousness in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest. Key expresses disgust for the enslaved people who turned coat to fight for the British in exchange for their freedom, writing: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.” Indeed, from its origins, the flag and its accompanying lyrical exultation established a particular conception of freedom and citizenship that defined black liberty as oppositional and threatening.

Unsurprisingly, white nationalist groups have historically appropriated the flag to espouse Key’s rhetoric. The American flag is as much a staple of the Ku Klux Klan’s symbolic ideology as white hoods and the Confederate flag. More recently, the National Socialist Party, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country, adopted an altered American flag emblazoned with a swastika and the letters “USA.” In Charlottesville, protesters carried American flags bearing the Thin Blue Line symbol signifying law enforcement’s maintenance of order. Despite 2016 Gallup polls revealing that a decreasing number of people feel proud to be American, the number of flag sales exploded during the 2016 election cycle. Demographic studies indicate that older, southern, white Republicans are most likely driving the surge in flag demand. While certainly not the only face of white supremacy, they are the most visible.

In “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” Carol Anderson suggests that historical instances of extreme racial violence should best be understood as direct physical and political responses to black advancement. Embedded in those cases of violence is the flag as a symbolic bulwark operating in tandem with white rage.

Responses by artists of color offer a further indictment of the flag’s lasting cultural legacy. Tyler “Dread” Scott’s 1989 installation, “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag,” toyed with the concept and attempted to undermine the sanctity of the stars and stripes by forcing viewers to trample on a flag in order to engage with the exhibition. David Hammons’ “African American Flag” replaced the traditional flag’s colors with the green, red and black of the Pan-African flag. Perhaps most potent in its redressing of the flag is Faith Ringgold’s “Flag for the Moon,” which distorts the shape of the stars and stripes to spell out a racial epithet. Even without assuming to prescribe authorial intent to these works, a clear narrative emerges. The need to repurpose or decolonize the American flag reflects a keen understanding of its history of granting privilege to some forms of citizenship while marginalizing and rejecting others.

Some accept the flag’s discriminatory legacy while in the same breath chastising Kaepernick for disrespecting members of the armed services. And so we arrive at the flag’s ultimate cultural resonance — its celebration of the U.S. military. Criticisms of Kaepernick largely center on his perceived ingratitude — namely, that he should be thankful that the military grants him the privilege to play football. It’s white supremacy masquerading as patriotism. As Wesley Morris of the New York Times writes: “For some, we learn, being American is conditional on behaving like a grateful guest: ‘You belong here because we tolerate your presence.’ We don’t yet appear to have settled the matter of citizenship.”

But the racially charged implication that a black American should feel privileged to have his or her presence tolerated ignores the rich history of black military participation. It’s a history defined by bravery, in which black Americans fought under the flag to protect the nation’s international interests despite enduring systematic discrimination and violence within the military apparatus. Take Wilbur Little, for example, who was lynched when he returned home for refusing to take off the uniform he wore while fighting in the First World War. His military service, his legal residency status and his personhood did not grant him protection under the flag he had carried to Europe and back.

Citizenship has always been a right for white Americans. Black Americans have unfortunately had to perform it. Their seats at the proverbial table are never permanent and require checking dissenting opinions at the door. When the next Colin Kaepernick refuses to obey the rules, pay attention to the chorus of white voices that swell defiantly, demanding that he abdicate his rented seat. Watch for the flags, too — I expect there will be plenty.

Daniel Wayland ’18.5 is The Herald’s arts and culture critic and can be reached at daniel_wayland@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com 

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