The American Flag and the Paradox of Freedoms

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity” ― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

I was asked a couple days ago, “What does the American Flag symbolize to you?”  As a veteran and as a Black man in America in the Age of Trump, that question is both loaded and complex. I have a cousin who served in the US Army under General Patton during World War II.  I have an uncle who served in the US Marine Corps during the Korean War.  My father and his younger brother served in the US Air Force and the US Marine Corps, respectively, during the Vietnam War.  I served in the US Navy in Southwest Asia during the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s.  When I reflect on the American flag, I think about my own family’s tradition of service and I also think about the Pledge of Allegiance.  Of the 31 words in the Pledge of Allegiance, the last 11 stand out the most to me: “…one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  “One Nation under God” remains an aspirational space for a nation that has succumbed to James Baldwin’s “self-perpetuating fantasy of American Life.”  Baldwin pointedly called out the propensity within American society to insulate from the dissonance of American fallacies and hypocrisies about the inclusivity of American values.  Americans wrap themselves in the plush blanket of infotainment – seeking news sources, social media, and entertainment which only reflects their individual – and, often, one dimensional perspectives regarding the inclusivity of freedom and equality.  We have to ask:  Do transcending values such as freedom and equality exist for all?   For me, both the representation of the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance reveal how narrowly defined freedom and equality remain in our nation in the context of how each is experienced by Black people.  Freedom and equality, all too often, remain deferred when we think about access to the level of wealth that impacts political outcomes.  Freedom and equality, all too often, remain deferred when people are dying on the street by the hands of not just police officers but armed vigilantes.  Freedom and equality, all too often, remain deferred as long as there exists the imposed choice to go to work during a pandemic or face being fired.  There is a paradox of freedoms in America.

Or will you stand up like a man

At home and take your stand

For Democracy?

That’s all I ask of you.

When we lay the guns away

To celebrate

Our Victory Day

WILL V-DAY BE ME-DAY, TOO?

That’s what I want to know. – Langston Hughes, “Will V-Day be Me-Day Too?”

Do I love this nation? Yes, it is the nation of my birth and the nation of my ancestors; at least, the last nine generations. Notwithstanding my family’s tenure and our collective, multi-generational service to this country, we still face paradoxical choices regarding our freedoms: In the Presidential election this November, we will choose between an overt racist or a man who promoted the destruction of Black families through his support for mass incarceration. If we don’t participate in this election, we stand to suffer even greater injury to our freedoms than has been inflicted in the last three years. To date, the current president has filled 200 judgeships with conservative and/or questionably qualified individuals who may have a lasting impact on civil liberties for the foreseeable future. Elections matter, but let’s also not forget that the ballot box isn’t the only part of this asymmetrical war. We can have greater impact and exercise greater agency through economic power and by harnessing the power of political action committees focused on funding candidates who support equity. We need to bring additional and varying perspectives of Black Americans to the proverbial table to dismantle illiberal democratic structures because who wins when freedom is narrowly experienced by those in the Black community?

Our common goal is to obtain the human rights that America has been denying us. We can never get civil rights in America until our human rights are first restored. We will never be recognized as citizens there until we are first recognized as humans.” – Malcolm X

The thin blue line, which is the flag many police organizations use to show solidarity, co-opts any unifying meaning represented by the American flag.  A black-and-white image of the American flag with one blue line is often used as a cultural counter to any discussion about reforms within the justice system.  This symbol also illustrates the psychological divide regarding law enforcement and the Black community.  As I have said previously, the Black Lives/Blue Lives dichotomy is a false one as evidenced by the dual reality that my brother and others like him experience; their reality is a Black Life in a Blue Uniform. The narrow lens that produces the black-blue dichotomy overlooks the humanity of either side, a practice that characterizes the core of the problem here: iIn-group identification symbolized by a flag often devolves into de-humanization of those in the out-group.  Moreover, a police culture that views itself as a militaristic, warrior caste symbolized by a flag which demands respect for their service and sacrifice is a seemingly terroristic institution, particularly, as the culture of that organization chokes the life from and violates our black bodies.  Law enforcement has a long history of extending the white gaze which believes in its inherent right to spacialize black bodies deemed unworthy to share freedom or equality.  Liberty and justice for ALL and “To protect and serve” are not competing interests; they exist under the same American flag, the flag under which I and many other Black veterans served.

“Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement.  White fragility is not weakness per se.  In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage” Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

Arguably, our nation is facing our most existential health crisis as we fight COVID-19.  Nevertheless, insidious forces that make something like wearing a mask into a politicized, culture dividing symbol on one hand, and deploy National Guard and US Marshals to protect Confederate monuments on the other, again illustrates the troubling paradox of freedoms facing Black families.  Earlier this spring during wide-spread lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we watched news footage of protestors — white, armed with many waving the American flag and/or wearing shirts emblazoned with American flag and many carrying firearms — railed against stay-at-home orders.  During the same time, we also saw video footage of three white men in a pick-up truck chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and images of armed white Americans lining streets as a counter to the protests for justice and law enforcement reform.  Just who is free in America as it exists today?  For some, protests for the freedom to leave one’s home during a pandemic trump protests for justice and for life and liberty. The connection here is that the myopic view that individuality overrides a greater good is an insidious and dangerous perspective within a democracy.  This illiberal view also explains how white people act as if they exercise authority over Black bodies and why this insidiousness remains canonized as an untold truth within the self-perpetuating fantasy that is America in the 21st century.  Illiberal perspectives reveal how many white people act out as if protection of THEIR status – their individuality – will always trump any collective good for all. Further, the protection of status is an exercise of control when that status infringes upon the rights of Black people to exercise their freedom, such as the right to protest for justice.  Life and liberty as well as freedom and equality are transcendent, or so I was told.

“But all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth…you must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

When I think of the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance, I reflect about my high school, Lew Wallace High School in Gary, Indiana.  I remember how a bugle would sound at 8AM, and if we students were in the hallway, we had to stop moving and turn to the nearest flag while colors were being rendered.  I think about the large plaque on a wall on the second floor that listed the names of the graduates who were lost during World War II.  I think about the families I knew growing up in which multiple generations had served in the armed forces.  I remember the parades on Broadway where so many families celebrated their share of the American Dream of middle-class hope and aspiration.  To be clear, the animus of racism and the paradox of freedom existed then as well, but it seemed to recede toward the fringes of our society as I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.  Perhaps I and others had been lulled into complacency because now the American flag has, and often remains, on the neck of people who look like me.  It has been usurped as a symbol of terror by being a symbol of cultural division. The underlying values the American flag represents have been contorted, conflated, and obfuscated to only represent a narrow perspective of what it means to be free in this country.  But, as with the election this November, if I don’t hold on to the transcendency of the values that the American flag is supposed to represent, then I and those who look like me will suffer even more egregious harm from those who choose to live in their self-perpetuating American fantasy.

Published by: Bryon L. Garner

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, Bryon L. Garner earned his Master of Liberal Arts in 2019 from Johns Hopkins University where he was a Roszel C. Thompson Fellowship recipient. Bryon has presented “Hegemonic Masculinity: The Soldier Athlete Identity as an Existential Paradox” and “The Soldier Athlete Archetype: Contrast of White and Black Masculinity in America” at the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs Spring Colloquia in 2018 and 2019. A current student in the Union Institute and University PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies program, Bryon’s areas of interest are Intersectionality of Identity, Masculine Archetypes, and Patriotic Identity.

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