On Inauguration Day in Washington, D.C., there was a veritable sea of Red, White and Blue as some two million proud Americans, including hundreds of thousands of Black people, furiously waved their American Flags on the National Mall. This overt expression of affection for the American Flag was somewhat out of character for Blacks, who have been understandably ambivalent about America’s sacred symbols. No doubt joining in this patriotic display was part of the pride the vast majority of Blacks felt in witnessing one of the most extraordinary “strides towards freedom” this nation has ever achieved – the swearing-in of the first Black President of the United States. But, I was not among those waving the Flag on that historic day. I am still ambivalent. I know what the Black National Anthem and the Red. Black and Green Flag mean to me, however, I don’t see myself, my people in the Red, White and Blue.
One of the most critical lessons to be learned from the study of history is that culture is often a source of resiliency, resistance and inspiration for an oppressed people. As America’s most patient patriots [African Americans have fought in every one of this nation’s wars], we need never apologize for any hesitancy to wave or display the Flag or to sing the National Anthem. I prefer the ambivalence and resistance toward the Flag because the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Africans in America are not imbedded in this nation’s sacred symbols. The same could be said of Native Americans and other people of color. Euro-ethnics have typically had a different feeling towards the Anthem and the Flag because America was founded as a White nation, where opportunities for Whites have been far more abundant than for Africans, Native Americans, Mexicans, Asians and other people of color. As Malcolm X aptly put it in referring to the experience of Africans in America, “you didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on you.”
I must admit that the Black vocalists who are increasingly tapped to sing the Anthem really add a lot of soul and passion to the lyrics. But, I cringe when I here the words “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” It’s the “our flag” phrase that I find infuriating. In 1812 when Frances Scott Keyes crafted the “star spangled banner,” 95% of Africans in America had no flag. Our forebears were enslaved on plantations where our free labor was yielding wealth for free White men with power and privilege to enjoy. Other lines within the four verses of the Anthem are also laced with irony, contradiction and hypocrisy. In the third verse, one finds the words: “No refuge could save the hirelings or slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” The fourth verse begins “Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand between their loved homes and war’s desolation.” Most Africans in America were not “free” and their homes were the wretched slave quarters!
Let me be perfectly clear, I am willing to stand up with pride to salute the Flag and sing the National Anthem, but it must be a new flag and a new anthem. When Jean Jacque Dessalines declared Haiti the first Black Republic in the world in 1804, the Haitian freedom fighters didn’t keep the French Flag. They created a new flag with white removed as an official color to signify the dawning of a new day for the new nation. When Blacks in South Africa finally triumphed over apartheid, a new flag and anthem were created to reflect the promise and prospects of the “new South Africa.”
Similarly, I want the American Flag to be “our” flag, to be one that represents the history, aspirations and promise for all the people who have come to be a part of this nation. Equally important our flag must represent a nation that has apologized for the transgressions of the past and repaired the damages suffered by Native Americans, Africans and other people of color during the course of America’s history. Americans must never forget that everyone who lives in this country is the beneficiary of the conquest and dispossession of the native peoples who were the original inhabitants of this land. There is still a trail of tears and broken treaties that must be acknowledged, accompanied by an ungrudging policy of systematic repair of the damage done to Native Americans. Moreover, at a minimum, an acknowledgement is appropriate for the seizure of territory from Mexico in 1848 and the subsequent mistreatment of Mexicans in this country. The same is in order for the unconscionable use of quasi-slave labor, “coolies” in the construction of the railroads and other public works projects and decades of discrimination, exclusion and mistreatment of the Chinese.
Finally, Americans need to remember that the “peculiar institution” of enslavement and generations of segregation, lynching and exclusion damaged and stymied the growth and evolution of Africans in America – the effects of which are still painfully evident today. The government of the United States, expressing the will of “we the people,” must have the vision and courage to affirmatively and definitely address, redress and repair the damage done to Africans in America and other peoples cited above to erase my ambivalence/resistance to embracing the Flag and Anthem.
In other words, the Flag must represent a more perfect union based on a New Covenant for a new America: a Covenant, which wholeheartedly embraces the notion of the United States as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society with a system of political and economic democracy that ensures “liberty and justice for all.” And, there must be new or modified sacred symbols that reflect this new America. Then and only then will I embrace the American Flag as “our flag.”
Dr Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of An Hour with Professor Ron Daniels, Monday-Friday mornings on WWRL Radio 1600 AM in New York and Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essay also appear on the IBW website and http://stateoftheblackworld.blogspot.com .He can be reached via email at email@example.com