What Is Your American Flag?

Two drastically different images of the American flag have appeared in popular culture. What might they reveal about the state of race relations in the United States?
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When Frederick Douglass was asked to speak at an 1852 event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, his hosts probably didn’t expect the speech he gave them, which included this famous gem:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity. … There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Douglass’ speech that day was a biting attack on the hypocrisy of a nation—and the systems within it—that professed the inherent equality among people (well, men) while holding millions of them in bondage.

Today, African Americans might ask a similar question: “What, to the African American, is your American flag?” This question occurred to me a couple of months ago when two drastically different images of the American flag appeared: on the shield of Marvel Comics’ Samuel Wilson, a new African-American character who now dons the stars and stripes as Captain America; and in the painting New Age of Slavery, an image of the flag that calls out systemic racialized violence against African Americans. Each of these powerful, cultural images speaks volumes about the state of race relations in this country—and the healing it so sorely needs.

The new Captain America reflects an exciting time in the world of comic books, a time in which characters are becoming increasingly diverse. With a female Thor, Muslim Ms. Marvel and other changes, Marvel Comics is making a point to feature characters that represent the broad range of its readers’ identities.

As Captain America, Samuel Wilson can lead children’s imaginations in numerous directions. Not only can an African American become president of the United States; he or she can fight for the common good as the consummate American superhero, clad head to toe in red, white and blue.

Patrick Campbell’s painting New Age of Slavery presents a completely different perspective on the American flag and what it represents. Going viral the first week of December 2014, the painting depicts hanging bodies in the red stripes of the flag. In the field of blue, some of the stars are cracked, and some are figures of men engaged in violent acts like shooting and striking. Still others are victims of those acts.

Campbell was inspired by story after story of African Americans dying pointless deaths at the hands of authority figures, but Eric Garner’s death was a tipping point. “It seems that African-Americans have been targeted in our own state and in our own country. I cannot stress that enough. IT IS OUR OWN COUNTRY,” he told The Grio.

Many have criticized the painting as disrespectful, to which Campbell agrees, adding that “it’s grounded on hard truths.” The violence illustrated in his flag is typical in many American communities—even the children in these communities know as much. It’s their reality.

These two manifestations of the flag reveal two facets of the U.S. conversation surrounding race: aspiration and reality. It is true we have a Black president—but it is also true that African-American students are more likely to be suspended than their white peers for the same violations and that African-American teens are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white peers. These types of lopsided statistics are not true only for African Americans but also for Latinos, American Indians, LGBT individuals and people with disabilities.

Think your students don’t know these facts? They do. Think they’re not talking about them? They are—and you should too. Talking about the systemic oppression that students of color experience isn’t racist. On the contrary, such conversation opens the door to a different future, a different country that shuns the hypocrisy Douglass spoke about 150 years ago.

If more people can accept and respect an African American proudly wrapped in the American flag, then maybe fewer of our students will identify with stripes that represent loss of life and oppression.

Bell is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.