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Consider: What symbols have different effects for distinct communities? Which symbols should we reclaim or modify? Which should be change or discard?
Last week, the Met Gala returned after a one-year absence due to COVID. As always, “New York City’s party of the year” drew attention and sparked commentary as a litany of celebrities arrived to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in custom-made designer attire.
The theme of the 2021 Gala was “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” Timotheé Chalamet sported all-American Chuck Taylors, Billie Eilish referenced Marilyn Monroe, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrived wearing a dress emblazoned with “Tax the Rich.” It was Debbie Harry of new-wave band Blondie who took the assignment most literally with her “deconstructed ballgown” with the colors of the American flag (The Hollywood Reporter).
Many liberals, celebrities included, found the Trump administration an embarrassing time to be an Americans (Newsweek, Huff Post, The New Daily). The Met Gala theme might be a sign that, with Biden in office, liberal patriotism and flag-waving is once again in vogue (Mediaite). But we should reflect on who the flag has excluded and oppressed. This is especially relevant when Black Lives Matter protestors are being beaten and arrested right outside an exclusive gala centered on this country’s supposed greatness.
Like any symbol, the meaning of the American flag is contested. Some members of marginalized communities wish to claim it, proclaiming that they’re as American as anyone else. But the American flag is often associated with right-wing and far-right politics. In 1918, Robert Prager was wrapped in an American flag and lynched by a mob consumed by anti-German and anti-socialist hysteria (Madison Historical). “In the 1960s, there was a battle over who got to use the flag to represent their point of view in the anti-war movement, civil rights movement,” said flag researcher Ted Kaye. “The Klan used the American flag more than it used the Confederate flag” (Street Roots). After 9/11, American flags symbolized support for the War on Terror that killed a million people (Brown University). Toby Keith’s war-mongering “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” with lyrics like “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” spent 20 weeks on the charts (Mother Jones). Today, white supremacist militias brandish American flags as they rampage through the streets of Portland, OR (Street Roots).
But even removed from conservative or white-supremacist associations, the flag’s history is messy at best. It was the flag flown by the army that murdered hundreds of Lakota civilians at Wounded Knee, killed dozens of civilians while suppressing the 1967 uprising in Detroit, stole the northern half of Mexico (National Archives), and invaded dozens of countries (Evergreen). The third verse of the National Anthem, an ode to the flag, celebrates murdering enslaved people during the War of 1812 (The Nation).
People of color, immigrants, and those seeking to change an exploitative and oppressive system have disproportionately been repressed, not represented, by the American flag. While celebrities paraded their takes on the “Lexicon of America” at the Met Gala, the NYPD was “brutally” arresting protesters outside (The Grio). The lexicon of America might include many people, but the prison abolitionists of color being brutalized on the street were evidently not among them.
Lex Scott of Black Lives Matter Utah faced a vicious backlash after stating, “When we Black Americans see this flag we know the person flying it is not safe to be around… We know that the person flying it lives in a different American than we do” (Newsweek). “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” said Colin Kaepernick. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (Paste Magazine). It behooves us to understand the real history of any symbol before displaying it with any sort of pride.
Black Lives Matter protestors were brutalized and arrested outside this year’s Met Gala, whose theme was “In America.”
Many communities don’t feel represented by the U.S. flag because of the actions of the American government and the flag’s association with far-right politics.
It’s important to consider the different impacts any symbol might have to various communities.