American Flags: A Conversation About a Contested National Icon

June 2, 2022   •   By Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy

FROM ABROAD, the American flag is a straightforward stand-in for the nation-state. It represents the United States in its global engagements, from wars to Olympic games. For immigrants like myself, the naturalization ceremony and the administrative path to it are replete with flag imagery, punctuating the steps toward the coveted moment of inclusion in the American community. However, from within the cultural dynamics of the United States, the flag is a far more complex symbol. It has been appropriated and reappropriated, contested, fought over, and altered. Today, versions of the American flag proliferate and are flown in strange juxtapositions: the Thin Blue Line flag, the Confederate flag, the Trump Stars-and-Stripes flag, the all-black flag.

I met with historian Woden Teachout and veteran and blogger Bryon Garner to discuss the meaning of the American flag against the background of deepening societal divisions in contemporary United States. Teachout is the author of Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism (2009); Garner researches and writes about the historical interplay between race and patriotism in the United States.

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OANA GODEANU-KENWORTHY: Are we losing the battle over the meaning of the flag?

WODEN TEACHOUT: I’m not sure that anyone has ever won the battle for the meaning of the flag — at least for long. It has been an incredibly elastic symbol. In the 20th century, you have the Wobblies waving it, then the Klan, then civil rights activists, then pro-Nixon advocates. If we look at how fragmented the country is today and how many other flags are springing up, the most obvious historical parallel is the Civil War. In the years leading up to it, you saw this explosion of variations: abolitionists waving flags with only 20 stars for the free states, a Peace flag that was the American flag cut on the diagonal, state flags, and — in the South — a single white star on a blue field. The proliferation of flags signified that the Stars and Stripes no longer stood for a united country.

But was it ever really united, or is this just how we retrospectively imagine United States history? For me, as someone entering American culture from outside, it was simple. The global view of the flag as a symbol of the United States emphasizes the “united” part. The ongoing tensions over states’ rights, and the origins of these tensions in the Civil War and, ultimately, the country’s racial dynamics, are harder to understand from a distance.

BRYON GARNER: The racial and military dimensions of the flag are always interconnected for me. As a veteran and a Black man in the United States, the flag has meant two different things. I grew up in Gary, Indiana, surrounded by World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. My father was in the military, and I remember seeing his uniform hanging up in the closet and wanting to grow up and be like him. In my high school, whenever we heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the loudspeaker, we stopped and froze facing the nearest flag. There were all these rituals associated with patriotism and the flag that were normalized for me growing up. Then, as a young man, I was deployed to the Persian Gulf and came home to parades and patriotism and all of that. But there’s also the other part, the racial aspect of the flag, and I experienced this as well, especially growing up in Indiana. All we had to do was travel 10 minutes south of Gary, and it was a completely different universe: there was a lingering history of Confederate flags, Klan meetings, lynchings, and sundown towns. I spent two semesters at Purdue University, which was a predominantly white campus. And I was accepted so far as I was in my Navy uniform, but if I was out of uniform, no one even spoke to me. It took me years to process all that and to be able to talk about it, because I was 18 to 19 years old, and it just overwhelmed me, and I didn’t have words for it. So, the flag has represented a lot for me in both of those spaces: both as a source of pride and belonging, because I served in the Navy, but also as a very clear statement that I didn’t belong.

WT: I think every American has a flag story that tells us something about who we are as a country. The inspiration for Capture the Flag was my experience at a protest against the invasion of Iraq. I went with my sisters and my baby, and I grabbed the flag off our house. We showed up and joined the crowd. It was winter and very cold. People kept looking at us funny, and I thought they were judging me for bringing the baby. But then someone asked us if we were protesting or counterprotesting, and we realized that the American flag was so culturally infused with a Bush, militaristic agenda that it was hard for people to imagine using it to protest that same agenda. I knew there was a much richer history behind the flag, so that experience inspired me to write about those stories. And guess which picture of the protest made the newspaper the next day. But it has only been recently that I’ve realized that one of the big reasons I felt the flag was available to me to claim is because I’m white and American-born.

BG: I would say that, right after 9/11, there was a brief moment when the flag was a symbol of national unity. There were these images of then-President Bush standing with firefighters against a background of twisted metal and the American flag; it was this signal that the United States was resilient and determined to overcome tragedy. But the response after that, and the militarization of the flag, has determined how American society perceives it and what it means to be a patriot. We were faced with an asymmetric war, in which both the military and law enforcement were perceived to be on the front lines of war. The war wasn’t against an army in the field; when you wage a war on terror, terror is an idea that can seem to be everywhere. In a war on terror, we’re unsafe everywhere, so now we need soldiers everywhere. This had serious implications on law enforcement culture and how it has been perceived these past 20 years. And now that the war is over, its militarized attitudes and perceptions are still with us; we’re still in this mentality of us against them, where groups of people think: the flag is for me; this is mine, not yours. Before 9/11, we used to emphasize that the flag represents all of us.

This militarization of American society that you talk about seems to have moved the conflict inward; the battle over the meaning of the flag has morphed into a battle over the meaning of patriotism. The other side — the political opposition — is even denied symbolic membership into the community of the nation. Populism has always fanned the divide between “the people” and the corrupt elites who do not truly belong. But to me, the trajectory of this inward conflict in recent years can be seen in the gradual move from the “love it or leave it” ethos of the Bush era to the all-black flag of the Trump era and its implied threat of violence against the enemy — except that now we are dealing with an enemy within the nation rather than outside it. At the same time, the Trump campaign has appropriated the flag as shorthand for its own nativist and populist version of “America.”

WT: The thing that has surprised me the most post-9/11 is the American flag with Trump’s image superimposed. We hadn’t seen that kind of political imagery in this country for over a century. Starting around the Civil War, it was common practice for candidates to print their likeness on a flag. But in the 1880s and ’90s there was a whole push for sanctifying the flag, and it didn’t sit well when political crowds tore down their opponents’ flags and trampled them under muddy boots. So, eventually, the flag protection movement outlawed the commercial use of the flag, and that’s when the politicians had to stop printing their faces on flags. I also think that the experience of the 20th century played a role: we saw so many dictators who conflated themselves and their countries that it made it harder to imagine printing an American candidate’s face on the flag. Trump’s face on the flag did away with that supposed neutrality. It’s interesting to compare Obama’s use of the flag with Trump’s. Obama was constantly using it as a symbol of a nation coming together across partisan lines, whereas with Trump, it is something that belongs to him — look at that CPAC moment.

You make an interesting point about 20th-century dictators and flags. I grew up in communist Romania, during the rule of Nicolae Ceauşescu, who was an ultra-nationalist in love with his own image. By the 1980s, Romania had developed an entire system of rituals and symbols devoted to celebrating the president. Every day in class, we sang the national anthem facing the flag and Ceauşescu’s portrait. Children chanted his name, waving national flags, in immense mandatory rallies several times a year. After all these years, I still find myself cringing at nationalist celebrations and patriotic events, even those that are a common part of American life: Boy Scouts parading the flag before a meeting, or the quasi-military chanting of the United States’s national anthem before sports events, when the entire stadium stands up hands to the heart. Of course, nobody will arrest me now if I don’t stand up or sing, but the pressure to conform to these rituals is there. We can see it at work in the case of Colin Kaepernick, although not as a punitive use of brute state power, as would have been the case in the dictatorship of my childhood. In the United States, Kaepernick’s kneeling merely created a backlash on a popular level. Trump urged his supporters to view Kaepernick’s kneeling as a form of disrespect to the flag, and his interpretation of the gesture stuck.

BG: The thing about Kaepernick is that the people who were against him missed the point of what he was talking about. It was not about Black Lives Matter; it was about Black and brown people being shot on the first encounter with law enforcement. I’d argue that Kaepernick’s decision to kneel before the flag is part of a longer Black patriotic tradition, in which it is a practical choice to engage in the duty of citizenship for this country in the hope of equality. This tradition goes through Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Alain Locke, James Baldwin. You look at Douglass in his Fourth of July speech wrestling with the question “Am I a citizen of this country?” And then: “If I am a citizen, am I a patriot in this country?” Dealing with that question is really the foundation of understanding what the Black patriotic tradition is; speaking out against a country one loves is also a form of patriotism. And so, I would argue that Kaepernick is a part of that. He’s connecting to something that has existed for quite some time.

I would also add that the use of the flag in such forms of critical patriotism is changing. In one of my American Studies classes this semester, I asked students to go out and find American flags around town and to reflect upon how they were displayed. The results were surprising; it’s as if the battle for the American flag has moved to the lawns of the Midwest. Alongside the usual sight of a flag flying on someone’s lawn, they saw American and Confederate flags flown together and lots of Thin Blue Line flags. A student brought a photo of a truck decal featuring an American flag where the stars were represented by bullet holes and the stripes by rifles, with the motto “We, the People, are Pissed Off.” On the one hand, the Stars and Stripes flag alone is no longer a straightforward signifier of patriotism, perhaps because the government and its institutions are no longer seen as legitimate or as representing the interests of “the people” (in itself a contested concept on the right). On the other hand, it is also symbolic that disagreement with the government is no longer signaled by burning the American flag but by redesigning it, by creating new flags.

WT: There is a left-right dynamic there too. The radical left has a history of burning flags, most obviously during the Vietnam era but really since World War I. And now we see the radical right creating new “American” flags and co-opting older ones. The Thin Blue Line flag is a great example. It was a direct response to Black Lives Matter, developed by a white college student upset at what he saw as derogatory talk about the police. According to him, the blue line represented the police protecting the citizens (the stripes above) from the criminals (the stripes below). The flag became the symbol of Blue Lives Matter and has been adopted by far-right groups. At least one police chief has banned its use on duty, saying that it undermines the trust the department is trying to build with the community.

BG: I believe equating warfighters with law enforcement and ascribing them heroic status is problematic from the perspective of communities of color and, indeed, erodes trust. This is significant to understand, especially when the Thin Blue Line flag — a version of the American flag — is embraced by law enforcement and their supporters. The protests by Kaepernick and others against police shootings of Black and brown people, and the visceral response they received, show that the American flag is central to the entire discussion. The irony of the juxtaposition of the American flag — and its associated politicized and militarized imagery ­­— contrasted with suppression of free speech cannot be missed here. And now we see other groups appropriating the Thin Blue Line model; you’ve got the Thin Red Line for firefighters and the Thin Green Line for the military; in all those cases, a profession is turned into an identity. And there’s the African American flag too — in red, black, and green, the colors of African liberation.

There are more and more flags multiplying across the political spectrum, standing for smaller and smaller groups. We have gone from one American flag to a range of flags that signal our fragmentation as a society.

This proliferation of versions of the American flag weaponizes the language of identity politics. The flags themselves are the material signifiers of competing versions of the United States or its new tribal identities. They are also commodities; on a whim, I researched flag suppliers on Alibaba.com, the Chinese online wholesaler that supplies a lot of the vendors on Amazon and elsewhere. There are dozens of manufacturers across China who make every version of the flag imaginable. You can even tour (virtually) the workshops that supply the material manifestation of the United States’s identity crisis. The flag battles are fueling a global manufacturing boom.

BG: The commercialization of the flag is problematic because its commodification highlights the hollow ritualistic culture around it. It’s time to get real about the American flag, though, and stop hanging on to the mythology that supports cultural warfare. Patriotism, the American flag — they bring up a lot of emotions both good and bad. And I feel strongly that we need to talk about it; we need to reclaim it from these extremes. But reclaim it in an honest way. We need to acknowledge that the American flag has been central to a divided country as opposed to a united country — it represents the best of our values, but it also now represents the worst of our values because we’re not telling the truth, and we’re not facing that truth, as a society. This is our opportunity to reclaim it in a way that is meaningful for all of us. It should mean something valuable, like you were pointing out; it should mean something valuable to an immigrant who naturalized here. To begin to unite us all, the flag has to represent all truths — the painful, inconvenient truths about race in the United States and the truths about immigration, gender, and class as well. Some people believe that diversity undermines a unified national identity, but I disagree. I believe we can tell all stories and find commonality in values. We need to have the willingness to speak and to accept the truth about lived experiences. This, I feel, is the challenge facing the American flag today.

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Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy is an associate teaching professor of American Studies at Miami University, Ohio.