Renée Graham

I’m an American. It’s my flag, too

Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via Associated Press

As someone who views the American flag with trepidation, I was surprised when a single suggestion pushed me to rethink my position.

“It’s time we started a movement to take the flag back,” Beverly Mire, who describes herself as a “committed enemy of social injustice,” recently tweeted. “We should all start flying it from our homes. The key would be to read the rules and treat it with respect, unlike those who use it as a statement and a threat.”

I’m an American. It is my flag, too.

Yet you won’t find it outside my home, snapping in a warm summer breeze, this Fourth of July. I’ve never displayed a flag because, at some imperceptible point, I stopped believing it belonged to me.


Certainly, I wasn’t raised side-eyeing Old Glory. As a child, I was part of the generation that grew up starting each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance. Even if my recitation was more mumbled routine than deeply felt, I never saw a reason to resist facing the flag with my hand within the general proximity of my heart.

Then I saw Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a white man brandishing a flag as a weapon to assault a black man on Boston’s City Hall Plaza, taken during the city’s rancorous busing era. Years later I saw a 1960s photo of a white Mississippi cop, his face knotted in fury, wrestling a flag from the hands of a black child during an anti-police brutality march. So tight is the crying child’s grip on that flag, the officer, who ultimately rips it away, yanks him off the ground.

At racist marches, the Stars and Stripes are carried alongside the Stars and Bars of the defeated Confederacy, as if the values imbued in both are the same. They are not. Bigots drape themselves in the flag, their racism displayed as patriotism. Some of the nastiest social media encounters come from people hiding behind avatars and profiles adorned with flag emojis. It serves as a warning.


Now migrant children, torn from their families and living in internment camps, are forced to pledge allegiance to this nation, even as the government wants them back across the border, preferably without legal recourse, as soon as possible.

President Trump literally hugs the flag, though making America great again means to him a nation only large enough for those he and his supporters deem worthy.

In disgust and dismay, I surrendered my flag to those who literally and figuratively wield it against their fellow Americans.

Now I want it back.

I understand too well all the ways that this nation falls short. As James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I won’t stop agitating for this nation to live up to its best, still unreached, image of itself. It is the most American thing I can do.

When angry readers of my column tell me to leave this country if I don’t like it, they’re getting it all wrong. Blind and acquiescent devotion to a country is the demand of dictators. No longer will I abandon my flag, the one generations of my family fought to defend, to people who use it to frighten, intimidate, and infringe on the values it’s supposed to represent.


Today we commemorate Independence Day, a tragic dichotomy, which marked freedom for some, but not for many who remained in bondage for decades. Too many burdens of those enslaved African-Americans remain unresolved and are now shouldered by their descendants. We will carry that weight.

In that spirit, I embrace a movement to take the flag back, to take this nation back, to reclaim patriotism in the name of my elders. I will remember that I, too, sing America, even when it means I have to do so three times as loud to be recognized and heard.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham @
. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.