Is it being a whiny White person to lament giving up on a national flag? After all, whole generations of marginalized citizen groups have felt betrayed by or never invested in the U.S. flag because the reality of our country has never lived up to the ideal the flag represents – not even close.
Many kids today, my daughter included, have been raised to question the actions of society and to know that history is biased, written by those in power, and far from complete (the majority of women’s and People of Color’s voices having been excluded).
But, I remember being in first grade and in my first school play. We had to dress up as pioneers. My mom bought me a long dress, green with a tiny flower pattern, an apron sewn into the front (ala Holly Hobby). She traced a circle on an old white bed sheet with marker using a Hills Bro’s. coffee can as a template, cut it out, made little slits, and wove a green ribbon through it, turning the flat sheet into a bonnet. I stood on a riser in front of our audience of parents and proudly stated my line, “His father kept searching low and high, till he found the naughty guy. George admitted, ‘It was I, I cannot tell a lie!’” I had recited the climax of the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. After, we sang the “Cherry tree, chop – chop, chop” song.
For years, I could remember every scene, every song in the play, which covered historical events ranging from the Paul Revere’s ride to Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag. The production made me feel so proud to live in such a great nation.
(If you must vomit, please do so in the bathroom. Thank you!)
I also remember celebrating 1976 because it was our country’s bicentennial. I may still even have a commemorative coin set stowed away somewhere.
Years after I became a young adult and started to learn that many of the teachings about our “great nation” were actually myths, the truth much darker, frequently shameful, I remember the first time I felt a real sense of patriotism. Not the kind made out of blueberry stars and strawberry stripes on cake or more importantly, standing and respecting VFW members driving in convertibles in 4th of July parades, but feeling patriotism in a contemporary, relatable sense. It was the day after 9/11. Even this was fraught with issues, I now recognize, but I’ll still never forget how I felt that day and for weeks to follow. The American flag flew everywhere. Strangers’ sorrow about the planes hitting the Twin Towers and Pentagon was practically palpable, even as we passed one another in the aisles of a store. We were struck tragically on our own soil, and it felt personal, and I felt “American” in a way I had never before known.
But that was 19 years ago.
Before racist backlash against our first Black president.
Before police brutality reared its ugly head in the mainstream media, showing Whites that the USA isn’t even close to post “-ism” anything and ultimately, leading to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Before Trump was elected, emboldening an ignorant, fearful, hateful mass of people who’ve had their heads buried in holes, evidently since the 1970’s or 80’s, to re-enter daylight, to shout, to bully, to injure, to murder, to blame “libtards.”
Recently, I was in a Black Lives Matter symbolic funeral procession. Since the start of coronavirus, it was the first such protest in which I’ve participated. Counter-protesters, the Blue Lives folks, stood along our route, “patriotic,” with American flags a-plenty draped, hung on poles, even dangling from a tow truck. I wasn’t surprised by them or their intelligent comments, such as “Fuck you!” but I was taken aback by the sheer number of flags – by the audacity. It infuriated me to think that the counter-protesters considered their stance to be somehow “American.” That those who are hired to protect and to serve everyone murdering Black citizens historically through to the present day is somehow acceptable and that protesting the act is somehow unpatriotic, unAmerican.
My husband, a social studies teacher, remarked, “But there is nothing more American than protest.”
For me, the U.S. flag has always represented the ideal – what our country claimed to have been and should actually have been founded on: freedom and justice for all. (#blacklivesmatter)
Infuriated, I wanted to scream: “This is NOT patriotism!”, I wanted to take the flag back from these hijackers. Despite the kneeling in recent years to show “we do not and will not support the status quo, this domestic colonization,” I wanted patriotism to not be owned by racists when it and the flag should live up to the hype – should walk the walk – should represent a loyalty ALL can feel in a just and equitable land, should represent freedom and justice for ALL!
I guess I’m an idealist that way. I believe in living in the world the way it should be if it were better, instead of living in it as it stands. We can and should aspire, always, to societal betterment.
Still riled, I suggested to heads of a couple of progressive groups after the funeral procession that we start flying the American flag at our events. That we work to take it back. I was reminded that the flag has always been problematic for disenfranchised Americans and that for this reason, we need to embrace new symbols.
I grieve. Perhaps ridiculous and very White, all considered, I grieve what seems to me right now to be the loss of the American flag to Trump supporters and all the ugliness they symbolize.
In an ideal world, we would be ready for a national rebirth. We’d make long-term changes in which we would create a safe, fair society for People of Color. We’d have a new independence day that ALL citizens could buy into and celebrate together because we finally overcame the tragic history and corrupt systems holding us back. We’d raise a new flag, symbolic of this awakening.
I grieve because we aren’t there yet. And at the rate we are going, I may not see it in my lifetime.