Memory  /  First Person

Scars and Stripes

Philadelphia gave America its flag, along with other enduring icons of nationhood. But for many, the red, white and blue banner embodies a legacy of injustice.

Patriotism rooted in exclusion

Encountering the flag that Key, a onetime slaveholder, celebrated unsettled me. Even as prominently as it waves over Fort McHenry, it is not a universal symbol. The third stanza of his poem, intending to honor the flag flying over Baltimore Harbor, is an admission that his world included enslaved men: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Key divided Americans between the free and the unfree. And among British forces, as he noted, were members of the British Corps of Colonial Marines, formerly enslaved men brought on to help defeat the U.S. Key saw the War of 1812 as, in part, a conflict between formerly enslaved men and American slaveholders. Likely his sympathies rested with the latter, and Key’s America did not include those held in bondage. This makes his anthem controversial still in our own time.

With that backstory embedded in its lyrics, Key’s anthem and the flag it sought to honor share a symbolic potency that has endured over two centuries. They both carry the power to divide and to unite us.

Like some other Black Americans, I live with a sense that the American flag might not be mine, that too often it stands for a patriotism rooted in exclusion rather than in hope for the inclusive, interracial democracy that my forebears struggled for. That I struggle for today. I recalled the American flags in my own home. One is faded and frayed, saved from among my mother’s things. For her, the flag added a touch of decorative Americana to a home where the garden was her truest pride. My second flag is pristine, preserved in plastic after being bestowed to me by a local VFW detail at the graveside of my father, a Black veteran of the World War II Navy. I safekeep these flags as mementos, but I do not fly them.

Still, the flag’s story is part of my own. As a schoolchild, I held my right hand over my heart and pledged to the flag each morning, until opposition to the war in Vietnam led some of us to stand in silence.