When the postal worker slid the book of “forever” stamps through the opening of the bulletproof glass, I was caught off guard. They were American flag stamps.
I would have preferred the Black heritage stamps, the ones bearing the legendary playwright August Wilson’s image, or the leftover Kwanzaa stamps — anything except the American flag. But it was too late.
The panel of stamps was in my hands, and I was stuck with them. I walked away wondering: When did I begin to loathe a symbol that is supposed to stand for “liberty and justice for all?”
I didn’t recoil in horror when Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback and activist, took a knee during the singing of the national anthem to protest police brutality. And the iconic images of Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their raised, black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem to protest racism in America in 1968 did not stir resentment toward a symbol that is supposed to instill pride in one’s country.
I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with my hand over my heart, believing it was a sacred ritual, much like the recitation of “Now I lay me down to sleep” when I was a child and “The Lord’s Prayer” when I was older. In the ‘60s, I was a spectator of the chaos.
I was a member of the generation that completed assimilation by being the first in my family to graduate from high school. Afterward, I went to work in a downtown office building instead of in a white woman’s kitchen — the beneficiary of the activism of civil rights leaders who had endured indignities I never suffered.
When white feminists were burning bras and white anti-war activists were burning flags, I struggled to rise above the station assigned to me by my skin color. I raised my voice proudly to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during the flurry of programs celebrating Black History Month, knowing that “America the Beautiful” is still the centerpiece of presidential inaugurations and patriotic celebrations.
When did the flag become such a symbol of pain and loathing to me?
After all, terrible things have happened under our flag — lynchings and riots, assassinations and injustices, and the flag remained a symbol of patriotism for many.
When did that change? Was it when former President Donald Trump came to power and started using it as a prop to bolster his image as a patriot?
The loathing might have started there. The infamous storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 tipped the scales.
It is one thing to see a mob of white people waving a confederate flag. I don’t like it, but I get it.
But I can’t easily erase the image of white people executing an organized assault on the nation’s capitol under the banner of the American flag.
I was driving recently through a neighborhood on the far Southwest Side and noticed a huge Trump flag alongside the American flag hanging from the balcony of an apartment building. While the people inside that residence could very well be good neighbors, the flags conjured up images of angry racists, not patriots.
After the events of Jan. 6, I’m having an even more difficult time seeing the American flag as a symbol of “one nation under God.”
My feelings are not novel.
In 1966, after civil rights leader James Meredith had been shot in Mississippi, “Sidney Street took his own flag into the street in New York and set it on fire. He told passersby, ‘If they can do this to James Meredith, we don’t need a flag,’” according to “The First Amendment Encyclopedia.”
Throughout history, the American flag has been desecrated in many ways.
It has been burned, trampled upon, defaced and mutilated. Yet its honor survived.
But as long as racism and inequality are allowed to boldly exist, the American flag is in real danger.