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“Don’t Matter How Raggly the Flag, It Still Got to Tie Us Together” (2003), by Thornton Dial Sr. © Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, 2008.182

Issue 104, Spring 2019

Flag Code

Two days after the election of Donald Trump, my husband and I sat in a lawyer’s office in Atlanta signing the papers for a three-story wood-shingled home. Our two-year-old, sick with a cold but still octopus armed, busied herself with a pen and shifted from lap to lap. 

We’re both from the South: he’s an Air Force brat whose family settled in Savannah, Georgia; I’m from the town of Prairie View, Texas. We’d both lived in New York City for more than twenty years, five of them married, and always imagined returning Home, where the pace was a bit slower, the housing more affordable, and people spoke in parables. This decision was accelerated after we, firmly in our forties, learned I was pregnant. Atlanta was the obvious choice. Both of our siblings and their families lived there; we would be nearer to our mothers; and it was the most progressive city in the South—a Black city, rich in activism, achievement, and innovation.

For two years, we’d traveled back and forth from Brooklyn to the A in search of a house. We wanted at least three bedrooms and equivalent bathrooms; a backyard our daughter could play in; an office/library for me and a man cave for him. Because New York had spoiled us, we also wanted to live in the city, in a walkable area near public transportation. We found such a home in midtown, just blocks from an art house movie theater, a beautiful park, and a Trader Joe’s (plus the kitchen had Viking appliances).

Still, with every stroke of my initials on the endless closing paperwork, I beat back fear like a brush fire. Although our new neighborhood was touted as diverse, I wished more Black people lived there. And what kind of fools were we anyway to leave New York City, one of the greatest cities in the world? What kind of fools were we to move back to the South now, after a contentious election that had violent bigots wriggling out from under their rocks? What kind of fools were we to return to the Confederacy from which we’d fled?

Oh, but the winter was warm, and a week before December, neither my baby nor I needed bubble goose-down jackets to take a walk around our leafy block. I pushed the stroller through our new neighborhood and savored the houses: bungalows and Victorians that recalled our former borough’s Ditmas Park. Magnolias and oaks canopied the street as the land rose in hills and dips. Midtown’s skyline loomed, and I understood why Atlanta is called “a city in a forest.” 

Perhaps it was in this moment I happened upon the house, unremarkable but for a small American flag jutting out of its frame like a rhinoceros horn. I hesitated at the sight of the banner so close to my home and was suddenly wary. Weary. I saw the flag and without thinking thought it code: Patriot. MAGA. Make everything white again. Even with all I know about the history of Black people in this country, I’ve never been afraid of the flag. On this day, however, I felt how I feel when I see the Confederate flag: Unsafe. My breath shallowed. When did this happen? When did the sight of an American flag flying from a private residence become something that gave me pause? Perhaps it was the untrusted whiteness of my new neighborhood. Perhaps my reaction was a kind of PTSD, a result of that summer’s back-to-back televised police killings of unarmed Black men or the murders at Mother Emanuel the year before. Perhaps it was the ridiculous victory of Trump. I saw the flag and remembered what I had been warned time and again about “progressive” Atlanta: Drive thirty minutes outside of the perimeter in any direction and it’s a whole different story. 

In my hometown of Prairie View—a small, predominately Black college town about fifty miles from downtown Houston—I don’t remember any flags waving from our houses. My father and many of our neighbors served in the military, but if there were any prominent symbols hoisted in our households, it was those of fraternities and sororities: my father’s purple-and-gold Omega Psi Phi paddle; my cousin’s hand-crocheted pink-and-green Alpha Kappa Alpha quilt.

We Prairie View kids were bussed five miles to Waller, the predominately white, rural town where we attended public school. From kindergarten until senior year, my classmates and I stood every morning, turned to the American flag, put our right hands over our hearts, and—led by a student over the intercom—recited the Pledge of Allegiance like wee robots. What did we kindergarteners know about allegiance to a country? My friends and I pledged allegiance to family and best friends and possibly our stuffed animals. But to the flag?

This ritual continued throughout high school, with greater responsibility. Each morning two students were charged with raising the flag. It took two students because the United States Flag Code—which considers the flag a living thing—forbids the cloth from touching the ground. After collecting the flag from the principal’s office, the bearers went outside to the pole in front of the school and slowly unfurled the banner, attaching it carefully to the harness and pulling the strings to raise it. At the day’s end, the same students pulled the flag down; standing across from one another and pulling the banner taut, they folded it lengthwise, stripes covering stars. Grasping the two edges and folding the fabric lengthwise a second time, one tucked and folded it into tight triangles until they met in the middle. The flag was returned to the principal’s office. This act, this taking down and raising up, was expected to be carried out with solemnity and seriousness. A yearbook picture exists of me participating in this ritual. 

By the time I reached my senior year, I’d stopped saying the pledge. I knew too much about the history of my people, well beyond what was approved by the Texas Board of Education. I’d been called “nigger” by classmates enough times to know that racism was alive and well. I knew MTV didn’t want to play Michael Jackson and that the U.S. government supported apartheid in South Africa. I knew Bo and Luke, the good ol’ boys I was cheering for on The Dukes of Hazzard who drove a car with the Confederate flag painted atop their hood, didn’t give a good gotdamn about me. 

My heart belonged to hip-hop, a new kind of protest music to which I had completely surrendered. Run-DMC’s “Proud to Be Black” and NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” introduced me to a peak level of pride, awareness, rebellion, and lyrical possibility. Public Enemy’s “Show ’Em Whatcha Got”—which begins with the Bar-Kays sample (often attributed to Frederick Douglass), “Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude”—taught me more in one minute and fifty-six seconds than I’d learned in damn near the entirety of my public school education, which still promoted the myth of Christopher Columbus discovering America and spent three awkward minutes discussing slavery. In my yearbook, where seniors were asked what “inheritances” they were leaving to the school, I wrote: “a portion of my extreme BLACK pride to all future students interested in keeping the King dream alive.”

When I stopped saying the pledge, my seventeen-year-old self didn’t consider my actions a protest, the kind for which Colin Kaepernick is catching hell. My refusal was the result of the revelation James Baldwin said almost every Black child experiences: “It comes as a great shock,” he wrote, “around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.”

“We have to do something,” my neighbor said, her voice rising an octave. She was inviting me to a sign-making party for the Atlanta Women’s March that Saturday, the day after the presidential inauguration. I really liked my neighbor—a realtor cum stay-at-home mom—and was relieved she felt compelled to attend the protest and thought to invite me. That Friday evening, my daughter and I strolled a few blocks to another neighbor’s home, where five or six families ate pizza, drank wine, and bemoaned the outcome of the election while the kids watched Star Wars. Our host’s seven-year-old daughter directed the sign-making, writing on poster board in Magic Marker: I HAVE DECIDED TO STICK WITH LOVE. HATE IS TOO GREAT A BURDEN TO BEAR. –MARTIN LUTHER KING, and the delightfully illustrated DONALD TRUMP HAS A BUMP ON HIS RUMP.

I wished my daughter and I weren’t the only Black family at this gathering. To tell the truth, not many folks in my circle were interested in going to the march. Either marches weren’t really their thing, or they felt this march did not represent them, or they were on the fence and would feel it out on the day of. I understood where they were coming from, but I missed the activism of New York City. I needed to be in the number. I needed to protest this presidency with my own voice and as an example to my kid. And I needed to know it was possible to do so in the South, in this city I was beginning to call home.

On the day of the march, the streets were brimming with dissent. Our crew found ourselves behind a banner that read 5th congressional district, the district in which we lived, the one Trump—retaliating in a row with Congressman John Lewis—described as “horrible,” “falling apart,” and “crime infested.” A small band played something one might hear in a New Orleans second line. My toddler and the little sign-maker held hands as we walked, my daughter reaching her arm out of the stroller while the sign-maker walked beside her, and for the merest moment, I felt something like hope.

As we made our way downtown through the thick crowd, dancing with the brass bands, shouting chants of resistance, and marveling at the brilliant signs, I was ambushed by a heavy, broad banner that fully enveloped me and my child, blocking our vision and slowing our steps. Disentangling myself from the cloth, which I recognized as the American flag, took effort, in part due to the slight, slow-walking elderly Black man who bore it. The pole on which the banner hung looked like it weighed as much he did. He wore a long black coat and a black cap covered in military unit patches with 1941 inscribed on the back. The man did not notice my daughter and me getting tangled. He looked straight ahead, carrying that mighty flag like he was carrying the cross. 

In step beside him was an older Black woman, also in a cap and light coat, holding a sign that read BLACK LIVES MATTER. I marveled at this juxtaposition and wondered how many miles they had marched in the name of freedom or equality. The couple did not chant, shout, or shake their fists. They just pushed forward, shifting the energy in their wake.

It’s been two years since our family moved to Atlanta. Slowly, we are making a house a home: a fresh coat of bluish gray paint; a cozy living room rug; framed family photos on the walls; a dinner party or three. I found a sexy sushi spot and a reliable café where I can write. Our neighbors across the street bring over warm, fresh-out-the-oven chocolate-chip pie during the holidays, and we give the kid next door five dollars to move our trashcans when we’re out of town. I’ve reconnected with trusted old friends and made good new ones. Best of all, our daughter gets to grow up with her aunts (real and play), uncles, grands, and cousins. We go to our nephew’s football games and our niece’s ballet recitals and enjoy that we-were-in-the-neighborhood-and-just-dropped-by blessing close proximity brings. 

I never met the people who hung the flag. Still I find myself hesitant when I pass their house. Even though my husband is a veteran, I find it difficult to muster that show of patriotism. In recent years, the flag has become such a political tool, shape-shifting into an ever more alienating symbol. The president has taken to hugging—literally embracing—the flag before speeches. On Twitter, conservative opinions are often punctuated by the American flag emoji and #MAGA. When I take that thirty-minute drive outside of the perimeter, the flag is perched on nearly every house, mailbox, and pole.

In truth, my relationship with the flag is as complex as my relationship with this country. In the aftermath of 9/11, when I lived in Brooklyn, the flag was ubiquitous, hanging from walls, fences, rafters, and storefronts, a symbol of national unity and defiance, stronger and more enduring than the explosion’s smoke. When I am in the airport returning from a trip overseas, the sight of the American flag is a relief—I have made it safely home, back to America the beautiful, back to the devil I know. Then there was the night my family ran out of gas on a dark road in Georgia. When the state police shined their flashlights into our car revealing five Black faces, the neatly folded American flag on the dashboard—given to my mother-in-law that morning in honor of her husband’s service in the Air Force—felt like an amulet, signaling to the officers our humanity. 

But it was the couple at the Women’s March who left the greatest impression. Just the sight of those elders moved me, their dignity straightened my spine. This land is my land, they were saying—reminding me—without uttering a word. As such, I have the right to be here. To live where I choose, without fear. To roam. Take a knee. Speak my truth. This land is my land. Even if it feels like my nation’s flag does not fly for me.

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Karen Good Marable

Karen Good Marable is a writer raised in Prairie View, Texas. Her essays, music journalism, and stories have appeared in several books and publications including the New Yorker, Seventeen, and Essence. After a lifetime of living in Brooklyn, she and her family now reside in Atlanta.