A few months ago, my wife and I tried out a new brewery down the road from us in Bedford, Virginia. It is in a restored factory building with brick walls and high ceilings. Beside the bar, a floor-to-ceiling glass wall reveals the brewing floor—equipment and hoses on carts, boilers, cone-bottomed fermentation tanks. We drank a flight of their beers, dined on BBQ and home-fried pork rinds, as echoing chatter drowned out southern fried rock and roll.
I glanced up and noticed the massive American flag hanging on the wall to the right of the entrance. Big as an apartment patio, the flag, once I registered its presence, never faded back into the scenery. It dominated the room and I did not like it. I am a veteran of the Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and I once noted that flag with simple, chest-swelling pride. That night I was ambivalent. I fear that to most of the people drinking there around me that night—Bedford is deep in Trump Country—it was not the flag I loved but another one.
I have noticed this reaction to the flag since last Veteran’s Day, when I awoke to find one smaller than a sheet of paper shoved into the ground beside my mailbox. Looking up and down the street, I saw that all my neighbors had them too. I walked down the driveway to discover a tag on the flagstick with the name Bob Goodlatte printed on it.
Goodlatte is my Congressman. His positions are consistently against social and racial justice and for white exclusivism, and I find them odious. Finding a flag planted in my front yard with his name attached to it disgusted me—I realized it was not my American flag. Just as the American flags white nationalists waved alongside Nazi and Confederate flags up the road in Charlottesville are not my American flags. Whose American flag can wave so comfortably alongside those symbols of racial hatred? Why is there such an outcry about black men peacefully protesting racism and police brutality and not a peep about this clear desecration of the flag?
Maybe because it is not a desecration. Maybe because the flag does not represent what I always thought it did. In the midst of the NFL National Anthem controversy, Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown erected a billboard near the entrance of Bedford County, on Rt. 460: “Law enforcement stands and places hand over heart for National Anthem! We kneel when we pray!” Residents interviewed by local WSET news remarked that it “showed law enforcement is behind the community.” One resident remarked, “It shows respect for our country and the freedoms that we have, everything is related to that flag.”
Old Glory, the symbol of freedom as it steadfastly waves “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Who are the free and the brave Francis Scott Key is lauding? Key was a slave owner, and the third verse of his poem includes the lines “No refuge could save the hireling & slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
AJ Willingham explains in a CNN online article, “In order to bolster their numbers, British forces offered slaves freedom in British territories in return for joining their cause. These black recruits formed the Colonial Marines and were looked down upon by people like Key, who saw their actions as treasonous.”
Likewise, Colin Kaepernick and those who have joined him are deemed treasonous for standing up against oppression. Protesting the national anthem is nothing new however. As William Robin writes in The New Yorker, Kaepernick is joining a long history of protest. For example, in 1844, the abolitionist paper the Liberator published alternate lyrics that begin,
Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light
The shrieks of those bondsmen, whose blood is now streaming.
From the merciless lash, while our banner in sight
With its stars, mocking freedom, is fitfully gleaming.
The rest of the lyrics, Robin continues, “describe slave ships waving ‘our star-spangled banner,’ excoriate ‘our blood-guilty nation,’ and conclude with the line ‘O’er the death-bed of Freedom—the home of the slave.’”
It is either ignorant or disingenuous to enter the NFL protest argument without acknowledging the fraught history black Americans have with it. To decry their protest as un-American is to place a racial wall around who gets to enjoy full citizenship, even now. I sailed to war under an American flag, and I love one version of it, the one aspiring to be a symbol of a nation that truly guarantees “liberty and justice for all.” I cannot abide the white exclusivism symbolized by the flag of Francis Scott Key, Donald Trump, and Bob Goodlatte.
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