On patriotism and sorrow: a personal history of the flag

You will seldom read about sports here, but Roger Goodell’s statement on national anthem policy today provokes many thoughts about patriotism and how the ties that bind us can also divide us.

When I was ten years old God got mixed into the business both of patriotism and daily household purchases. This is the year (1954) that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, not without controversy. I remember stumbling over the word change every morning after Congress passed the Joint Resolution that mandated this change to the Flag Code. Two years later Congress passed another Joint Resolution stipulating that the words “in God we trust” must appear on all U.S. currency. 

These changes mixed strangely with warm feelings of standing with the multitudes at Cleveland Municipal Stadium to sing the National Anthem on pleasant summer evenings, followed by the pronouncement: “Play ball.” And even more strangely with the grainy apoplectic faces of Senator Joseph McCarthy and company: McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, conducted hearings into his charges that the U.S. Army was “soft on communism.” This is among my earliest memories of television. Also 1954.

Flags stood at the front of the classroom in elementary school, and flew from poles in public places. We were taught that Betsy Ross was a seamstress who “made” the first American flag. This may be an apocryphal story first recorded by her grandson. We were not taught that as an apprentice to an upholsterer she also made and repaired curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds.

And then – in 1954! – President Eisenhower standardized the dates and time periods when the flag was to be flown at half staff:  Memorial Day, Peace Officers Day, upon the death of a president or former president (for 30 days), upon the death of a vice president, Supreme Court chief justice/retired chief justice, or speaker of the House of Representatives (10 days.)

My first memory of the flag at half-staff is following the assassination of President Kennedy – nineteen years after Eisenhower’s proclamation. The period of mourning was one of extraordinary national unity.

 

All in all my relationship with the flag was respectful, if perfunctory and transactional. 

So I was more bemused than triumphant when astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong planted the flag on the moon in 1969. More bemused than horrified by flag-burnings during Vietnam War protests.

It was President Nixon who adopted the flag as a lapel pin. He was also the first President to end a public speech with the words “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.” (The speech was an attempt to exert damage control over the escalating Watergate scandal.)  And flag pins were not uncommon during the First Gulf War (1990-91).

But it was after 9/11 that President George W. Bush – and his staff – and some news anchors, began not so much wearing as displaying them.

 

This is when I started to feel queasy. 

As if something that was a standard fixture in my life was being appropriated to stand in for something that I did not stand for at all: the display of patriotism. As if the terrible assault on our civilian life required the display of a symbol for us to rally around. I’m not talking about fireworks displays or parades on Independence Day. Or the display of respect when a folded flag is handed to the family of a fallen military member. 

What I mean is the display of the flag as a badge of chosen-ness, of righteousness or self-righteousness, the display of the flag as if it is a political brand. Or a team brand. This is where Goodell’s statement of the day comes in:

It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.

This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.

And then there’s the mixing up of patriotism and God. The God I believe in is not the God of American currency, a deity of patriotism, or a deity who favors either a set of political or religious beliefs or any tribe or nation.

 

The flag for me has become real. It has become a sorrow.

Not a symbol of sorrow but a sorrow in itself. Because it is flown at half-staff with such frequency that I often have to inquire of people  – or Google – just who is being mourned and for what reason.

And because in 2018 the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag does not confound a 10-year-old trying to remember to add two new words to her daily recitation, but inspires a six-year-old to decide, all on his own, to take the knee. And because in 2018 a team member can be relegated to the locker room for “bad” behavior (choosing not to stand for the national anthem) the way I could be sent to the coat-room at the back of my classroom in 1954 for behaving out of order.

 

So I heartfully propose that we decommission the flag, the pledge, and the anthem all three as badges of anything. 

Let us rid all three of sanctimony. Instead let us return them to their essential nature, a true sanctity. Let us consider the values they inspire us to embody, in support of the indivisible Union to which we continue to aspire. Humility shoulder to shoulder with pride. From the depths of our humanity.

I can think of no better antidote to

the American flag as sorrow.

FULL DISCLOSURE in the face of recent events

Version 2

The bumblebee I have been eyeing is having a hard time of it with the evening primroses, whose petals at high noon have mostly collapsed into soft mush. Every 3rd or 4th wilting bloom she lands on, she manages to work her way in to where the nectar is. Soon she gives up and goes for the easily accessible stalks of liatrus.

This morning, I am working at having a FULL DISCLOSURE heart and soul with myself. Because that collapsing evening primrose bloom is the body-mind of my country, spent, folding in on itself, and ready to fall to the ground. And I am the bee who insists: there is still nectar here, there is still something important to be gathered here. Don’t move on just yet.

To stay here, stay here, stay here long enough to weep, that is the challenge.

Last week I was full up with working against multiple deadlines. So when I came off an involuntary news fast the news from Baton Rouge was 3 days old, from Falcon Heights 2 days old, from Dallas, 18 hours old – an eternity in social media time. My heart rose to my throat and dropped to my feet all at once. My body went into its default state: dissociation.

Sorrow and determination, the same two words now rise in me again as they first did after the Freddie Gray Uprising in my home town, and then a few months later after the Charleston church shooting.

And something else, a fierce love for Baltimore.

A Mason-Dixon line city. A gritty city.

The-park-bench-with slogan-at-bus-stops-city: The City That Reads. Believe. Charm City.

Home of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center and HONfest.

The city of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Lenny Moore, Thurgood Marshall, Henrietta Lacks, Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday. And the city of Francis Scott Key, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Enoch Pratt, Philip Berrigan, Wild Bill Hagy, Barry Levinson, John Waters.

The history of my city and the goodness of its people are both rising up.

Native Americans have lived in this area since the 10th Millennium BCE, but were probably not inhabiting the land when David Jones settled a claim in 1661 on what is now the East Side. Thomas Cole settled the West Side in 1665, then sold it to Jones 14 years later. East and West Bawlamer remain vital cultural distinctions to this day, with Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland “Health Systems” the respective dominant land-holders.

We became the Port of Baltimore in 1706 and Baltimore Town in 1729.  By the early 19th century we were a major port for the slave trade, attracting  slave dealers from Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. They built slave pens – yes, pens – near Pratt Street, now the major east-west thoroughfare that passes the Inner Harbor, a commercial development and community event and gathering place with a modern history of being inhospitable to groups of black youth.

I get the feeling that most any place I might step in the city I am obliviously treading on history, even holy ground, ground sanctified by suffering.

As individuals, we heal when we come out of memory into the present moment. We do this when we remember. When we bring into awareness our forgotten, suppressed, and frozen griefs and rages. When we feel them in our bodies. When we permit them entry and integration into our psyches and lives instead of acting them out.

This is the journey we seem on the verge of beginning as a nation. Towards naming our disappeared, both owned and owner.  Towards feeling slavery and all its repercussions in the civic body. Towards FULL DISCLOSURE. 

How can safety, justice, freedom,  reconciliation, possibly be realized in its absence? 

And this is likely to be a rough road, given how difficult it is to agree on “facts.” Given how poor we adults are at listening. Given our tendency to make the world over in our preferred image. Given the ways our tribal bonds have taught us to see the “other” as suspect if not outright dangerous.

I sit here, watch the bumblebees, hope the sunshine will thaw me into weeping.

Meantime, in this thirst to know my city, I sip bittersweet nectar, begin to gather historical facts to dignify some few drops of the lifeblood of all those who have been erased from my city’s narrative and living memory.


A wealth of historical facts is available through The Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland – case studies, interactive maps, and a searchable database: http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov