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Black Folk, the Flag and the Fourth

The forefathers of this country were, essentially, a militia.  Our American flag was designed as an anti-imperialist symbol against Great Britain. The freedom of speech that we enjoy in this country was specifically designed in order that it be incumbent on Americans to stand up in the face of what someone might perceive as an egregious injustice and say, 'No! Wait a minute! Stop!' That is ultimately patriotic!"  ~ Will Smith (during interviews for the film "Ali".)

The Fourth of July is a complicated holiday for black folks. To many of us, celebrating Independence Day seems naïve and foolish given the brutal, racist oppression (much of it government-sponsored) that has been heaped upon our people since the founding of this nation. So, the idea of flying the American flag, on the Fourth of July or on any other day – is insulting or ridiculous to a lot of African-Americans. I empathize with this view but, after much internal deliberation, I have come to a different conclusion. I will fly the flag on the Fourth, for three basic reasons which I now offer for your consideration.

The first and simplest of these motives is that the flag belongs to us, because America belongs to us. Racists want the world to believe that the United States was built and made great entirely by white men. But we know better. The U.S. has always been racially and ethnically diverse and the countless contributions by men and women of color — on all levels of society – have defined this nation from the very beginning. Our blood, sweat and tears, our intellect, ingenuity and joy are integral parts of the American historical and cultural fabric. So, no matter what anybody tries to say, the United States is, has always been and forever will be our country!

My second reason for displaying the flag is that it symbolizes the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence and the laws codified in the Constitution — the two great documents which were crucial to our struggle for freedom inside the "Land of the Free." The righteous battles for civil rights were fought through boycotts, marches, sit-ins and voter registration campaigns. But, ultimately, our victories over segregation and discrimination were secured in the federal courts where heroes like NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall used the U.S. Constitution to overturn one racist law after another.

Finally, I will fly the flag as a form of protest. I disagree profoundly with the policies of previous administrations and by speaking out against the war in Iraq, punitive and neglectful education reforms, tax cuts that harm the poor, etc., I am expressing my love of country. It is a deep love that requires me to admonish my nation (in the same way that we admonish loved ones) when I feel she is going in the wrong direction. A lot of conservatives try to make folks feel that they are un-patriotic if they speak out against the war or other actions of the White House. But the Declaration of Independence says that opposing the government is every American's right. The preamble to the Declaration breaks it down like this: ". . . whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government." So, telling the White House, Congress, the military or any other government body that you think they are wrong can, actually, be an act of profound patriotism.

Frederick Douglass was correct when he said that America never had a "negro problem." America's problem, Douglass explained, has always been deciding whether or not to uphold its own ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all. The Constitution, gives America no legal or ethical choice except to live up to those ideals – even if America has to be forced, kicking and screaming to do so. This is what the flag represents to me, and this is why I'll be waving Old Glory on the Fourth of July.



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