I know I’m not alone in this. Lots of Americans are alienated by the arrogance they see in the flag — jingoism, nationalism, the whole greatest-country-on-earth stance at its most belligerent and least self-aware. As a Black American, my alienation is longstanding. For me, it’s also personal: I’ve always wanted to like the flag, but I could never get close to it. As a child, saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school, I knew I was mouthing words to a distant, demanding authority that didn’t have a positive notion of me, if it had any notion of me at all. When I got older, I conspicuously avoided saying the pledge at public events or putting a hand over my heart. The love was simply not there.
Yet a need for intimacy with the flag persisted. I came closest to it during the Olympics, when I rooted for Black athletes who were obliged to do the hand-over-heart thing and gaze at the flag after they’d won a medal on America’s behalf. Many of them seemed genuinely moved, perhaps to their own surprise, and that moved me; In those moments I glimpsed the possibility of the flag actually representing people in all their complex uncertainty. Still, I completely understand and support Black athletes’ refusal to oblige, from John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute in 1968 to Gwen Berry’s turning her back at the track and field trials for the Tokyo games last week.
I waved the flag exactly once — the day after 9/11, standing on the curb in front of my apartment building in Los Angeles along with my Black neighbor. Even though we were both swept up in the sorrow of that terrible event and were mourning the many lives lost, the gesture still felt weird to me. I was performing a patriotism I didn’t fully feel. I held the flag aloft that day, but I still felt threatened by what it had always represented to me. It wasn’t an extension of me, but something to hold as far away from me as possible, like a match burning down to my fingers, or a writhing snake.
A couple of weeks ago, however, my relationship to the flag changed. It wasn’t a dramatic moment or a particularly political one. But it made me see anew the way we assign meaning to political symbols — and how that meaning, however ingrained it might appear, is fluid.
The change was abrupt, an epiphany that happened unexpectedly during a routine dog walk (an activity that has yielded more than one epiphany). That day, I was walking through a mostly white neighborhood in L.A. where a lot of American flags were on display in anticipation of July Fourth. Normally, the sight makes me cringe inwardly or sigh aloud. Only this time, for some reason, I didn’t see authority. I saw merely flags — cloth fluttering from a pole. The smug triumphalism of the stars and stripes had completely vanished, leaving behind husks.
I blinked — was this a mistake? But as I walked on and encountered more flags hanging from eaves, dug into lawns, printed on pleated bunting, the vision persisted. The flags conveyed nothing. It felt like I had pulled back a curtain on the fearsome Wizard of Oz and discovered a small, ordinary man trying to run a hustle he knew he couldn’t sustain, that he had no business setting up in the first place. Right before my eyes, the fearsome American flag had given up the ghost.
Although the change was sudden on the surface, I realized it had been building for years. The MAGA hellfire of the Donald Trump presidency took what I’ve always seen as the white-supremacist symbolism of the flag to absurd new heights. The flag became the emoji of choice for Trumpsters, and it was carried alongside the Confederate flag when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 in a frenzied attempt to overturn a legitimate election. This proved too much for Old Glory. Under the weight of ongoing right-wing delusions about stolen elections, not to mention critical race theory and the purpose of democracy itself, the flag simply collapsed in my eyes. It could no longer sustain the hysteria of the white nationalist right, nor the enmity of dissenters like me. It no longer had the heart for either job. It seemed to have quit.
The inanimate object immediately stirred emotions and, oddly, an empathy in me that the symbol had always prohibited. For the first time, I liked it. I identified with it. The object is, like so many of us, tired. It has been claimed and exploited over hundreds of years, freighted with oppressive racial meaning it didn’t ask for and could never really bear. It has been a slave to the whims of the self-styled patriots who have long conflated whiteness with nationality, dominance with democratic ideals. This was never the object’s true meaning, only its job, which it has performed because America has not really given it any other. But that doesn’t mean it wanted the job, or approved of it.
I know that many people who remain alienated from their own flag — especially Black people — believe that, even in an inanimate state, it is incapable of neutrality. The stars and stripes representing the 50 states also represent the troubled history of the states — the original colonies steeped in Black slave labor that built up the wealth of the whole country, the devastation of Native Americans wrought by statehood everywhere, from Mississippi to Hawaii. That history is why it’s always been so difficult for conscientious Americans of all colors to embrace the flag and make it their own: From the beginning, it was someone else’s.
I never expected to embrace it either. I was not in the habit of trying. But that was the power of the moment on that dog walk: Because I wasn’t trying, and because the flag’s symbolism had been co-opted so blatantly — stolen, really — something strained and broke. In shrinking down to an object, the flag was admitting failure, and in that failure, I finally found the intimacy that I never thought was possible. I felt for the flag. As a Black woman, I know what it is to struggle with representation and symbolism foisted upon me by other people without my permission. I know how hard it is to escape that symbolism, even when you’re failing at it, to lay the burden down.
As welcome as the epiphany has been, it’s not the end of something, but a beginning. Maybe the flag has quit its career job, but it still has to do something different now —fulfill its true potential. Now we’re at least on the same footing, on a common search for a meaning of America that we can agree on and live with. The flag I see now on my walks around town is a fellow traveler, if not exactly a friend, or an intimate. But that’s a lot better than seeing it as the enemy.