Photos by Kayla Lee
“I feel like now more than ever [the American flag] represents fighting for what is right and fighting for the justice of other people,” sophomore Peace Ikediuba said.
Ikediuba was born in Nigeria, and her family moved to the United States when she was 3 to give her and her siblings a better education. For Ikediuba, the flag represents hope, but she said this meaning has become more nuanced in light of the current political climate and movements against racism that concern the flag and what it stands for.
“It means hope,” Ikediuba maintains. “It means that there is so much to be done. A lot has been done already. But there is so much to still be done, whether it’s for African Americans, or for Hispanics or for Native Americans. But it means that there is hope, even in the darkness and even in all that America has been through, there is so much we can do for one another still.”
Congress adopted the stars and stripes as the American flag in 1777, spelling out exactly what the new country’s flag should look like, down to the number of stars and stripes on the now iconic symbol.
“Resolved, That the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation,” the Flag Act of 1777 states.
While this act is straightforward in the flag’s description and what it represented at the time, both of these elements have evolved over the 239 years of its existence. Today, what is perhaps the most recognizable symbol in the United States also plays a central role in national debate over just what meaning lies behind the red, white and blue.
American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick protested the oppression of people of color by choosing not to stand for the National Anthem starting in August 2016, sparking debate of whether kneeling is being irreverent to the flag. President Donald Trump reignited conversation over this protest in the form of several tweets regarding multiple players and teams in September of this year, claiming that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem.”
Assistant Professor of Political Science Jason Blakely said those national symbols have been adopted by an array of groups in the United States at different times in the country’s history to embody their own set of ideals and beliefs.
“[The Flag] is a contested symbol, and I think people often don’t realize the fact about it that there’s not a single meaning that all Americans ascribe to the American flag,” Blakely said. “It has to do with their competing visions of what America’s about. And I think that’s true for all our national symbols.”
Nationalism and Patriotism
“I actually think the most important historical break in the meaning of the flag is that the American flag was not originally a nationalist symbol,” Blakely said. “It was a patriotic symbol. And I think people don’t even distinguish those two things today.”
Patriotism, according to Blakely, is the idea that “you love the laws, and that your citizenship is based in part on your commitment to those laws.” Nationalism is “the idea that to belong to a political community, you might have to have certain cultural traits, religious beliefs, ethnic traits — it could be racialized sometimes,” he said.
The word “patriotism” can be traced back to published writings as early as the mid-17th century, according to Merriam-Webster. The term “nationalism” is first noted nearly 150 years later. And while the definition of patriotism — “love for or devotion to one’s country” — has remained largely unchanged, nationalism has grown to be defined as “loyalty and devotion to a nation” and “exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests,” Merriam-Webster states.
This is where Blakely said he sees the biggest rupture surrounding the meaning of the flag.
“I think the most important thing to recognize about the flag is that when the flag was designed and instituted … it wasn’t part of a nationalist revolution,” Blakely said. “And I think that people today who claim the flag [often] claim it on a nationalist basis. So they’ll say the meaning of the flag is that there is a particular American way of life.”
According to Blakely, the 19th century marks a shift away from the original meaning of the flag for some.
Francis Scott Key penned the “Star Spangled Banner” following the shelling of Fort McHenry by British troops during the War of 1812. The poem became a popular song in the 1860s, but it wouldn’t be adopted as the National Anthem until 1931.
In the meantime, the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag was published by Francis Bellamy in “Youth’s Companion” magazine in 1892 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival on the American continent, according to the Washington Post.
But in 1777, the flag served as a “rallying point” for colonies that had banded together against the British, but did not yet share a cultural identity or have a significant cultural or ethnic difference from the British, Blakely said.
“So it wasn’t a nationalist revolution,” Blakely said. “It was a patriotic one.”
The 1890s brought a print media revolution that helped spread the image of the American flag across the nation, eventually spurring one of the first movements to protect the flag from desecration.
Following the popularization of the Pledge of Allegiance, the flag was commonly flown over schoolhouses. By 1921, the Pledge of Allegiance was officially included in citizenship textbooks, making it a part of the process of immigrating to the United States.
Senior Rachel Bardwell’s paternal grandmother is from Italy, and her grandparents on her mother’s side immigrated from Taiwan. Bardwell, who is half Taiwanese and part Italian and English, grew up in Washington, D.C., practically right next to the CIA headquarters, she said.
Bardwell said she spent her childhood surrounded by state and national history and other children whose parents were members of Congress. She took trips to Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg. “I dressed up as Betsy Ross for my fourth grade presentation,” she said.
When she looks at the flag, she said she sees a rich history as well as multicultural acceptance, especially when thinking of her own family.
“We’re very much grateful that we have a place [here], and there definitely is an American dream still alive in my family,” Bardwell said. “I would say that is what I would see when I see the American flag.”
But her views of the flag have not been static throughout her life, especially recently, she noted. In California, she said, people are more likely to speak up about things they disagree with and be more liberal in their activism. This, combined with a class on religion and culture, led her to consider the “melting pot” from a different perspective.
“We still have issues of racism and discrimination even though a lot of us like to believe we’ve moved past it,” she said. And though she said she has not experienced much overt racism or discrimination herself, she sees more passive forms of racism in casual conversations and the films she studies for her concentration.
“I’ve definitely become more aware of the fact that the [United States] may be a place where a lot of cultures come, but we do need to work on the fact that we need to accept different cultures,” she said.
A Military Symbol
Professor of Political Science and Navy veteran Dan Caldwell said he views the flag as a symbol of the country’s ideals, including freedom, equality and liberty, of which he said the country has “fallen far short.”
“To me the flag is a symbol of those ideals, which is one reason I respect it and honor it,” Caldwell said. “And the fact that it has been such a powerful symbol in the wars that the United States has fought.”
The American flag was first issued to the army in 1834 and became a prominent symbol at the start of the Civil War about 30 years later. Union Major Robert Anderson took the flag from the Battle of Fort Sumter after surrendering to the Confederate bombardment in April 1861 and brought it north, where it became a prominent Union symbol.
In the years since, images of the flag flown at battle sites have been widely circulated, from the iconic image of the flag being raised by six American soldiers atop Mount Suribachi during the invasion of Iwo Jima to a photograph of an American flag that survived the attacks on the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
“An obvious but profound fact is that any member of the military, police forces [and] firefighters voluntarily risk, and if necessary, give their lives for our fellow citizens,” Caldwell said. “And there’s nobody else in our society who does that. And so, you know, once one has done that, I think the flag and those sorts of things take on additional meaning.”
But while he values the flag, Caldwell also said he values the First Amendment as one of the ideals the flag represents. Though he may disagree with lack of reverence for the flag, he said he sides with Voltaire in defending to the death the right to act in such ways.
Associate Professor of Decision Science and veteran Robert Shearer has lived on multiple continents and all over the United States during his childhood and 22 years in the Army. With his father in the Army and his grandfather in the military as well, Shearer said he was raised to view the country, and its symbols, as a good. “Not quite American exceptionalism, but close,” he said.
“I had this very, very positive view of the country and therefore that carried over to the symbols,” Shearer said.
Shearer said one of the reasons he served in the Army is that he believes in the importance of the principles of the United States, including freedom of speech.
“It makes the most sense, I think, for Democracy. So if you’re going to open that door, if you’re going to give people those rights, they only take on meaning when someone says something you don’t like,” he said.
But over time, he said, as he moved around the world and interacted with different people, his views on these symbols, including the flag, changed.
“I’m much more cognizant of our failures as a country,” Shearer said, adding that he is more willing now to listen to perspectives outside his own.
“I still view [the symbols] as very positive, but I understand now why other people at times don’t,” he said. “I think I understand why people have protested the National Anthem, whereas 20 years ago I wouldn’t have understood.”
But seeing someone exercising their First Amendment rights in ways in which the flag is not esteemed is difficult for him, Shearer said.
“Where I’m conflicted is, at the same time, I’ve had friends that have come home in coffins under that flag, and had wives of friends of mine been handed that flag … so that’s how I view the flag,” Shearer said.
A Symbol for Protest and Reverence
Professor of Sociology Robin Perrin said the flag and other symbols are meant to unify people. “They’re part of what sociologists call our ‘civil religion,’” Perrin said. “There’s a quasi-supernatural component to them, and they are ways to unify people around ideals of a country.”
As for the flag, “it’s an image that obviously some people attach more sacredness to than others, so that’s what gets debated in society,” Perrin said.
He said that it is society that attaches meaning to the flag and decides the appropriate ways to honor it. The danger here, he said, is that those who violate those appropriate ways are seen as disrespectful.
“Not only does the flag become sacred, the response to the flag becomes almost sacred,” Perrin said. “You can’t challenge it. To do it a different way is automatically being disrespectful.”
In the recent string of protests with National Football League players kneeling during the National Anthem, the act of kneeling takes on a different meaning, he said.
“Kneeling by itself, of course, wouldn’t be anything disrespectful at all,” Perrin said. “In fact, if you think of it in a religious sense, you imagine kneeling often meaning humbling yourself before a deity. So kneeling by itself is often a symbol of humility and honoring something … in another setting.”
While symbols serve to unite the country, they can also divide it, Perrin said, referring to the NFL controversy.
“Some people are not thinking about Black lives and whether they matter,” he said. “Some people are thinking about those who died on the shores of Normandy. Both are ideals. Both are something we could unify over. But they’re obviously so divisive.”
The flag has been involved in protests throughout American history. During the Vietnam War, protesters of U.S. policy used altered images of the flag to convey their messages. Civil Rights activists carried the American flag during protests during the 1960s. In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that burning the flag in protest is protected under the First Amendment in Texas v. Johnson.
Senior Randy Mata is a first-generation college student. He does not care for labels, he said, but he is also Mexican-American. He grew up in Houston, Texas, where he said he was taught the meaning of the flag in school, but did not ponder it much of his own accord.
“Being Mexican-American has not given me the same sense of patriotism that I think [the flag] gives most people,” he said. “So I get the whole symbolic meaning, I get the history behind it because obviously you learn that, but … I don’t empathize with it as much as other people do.”
Mata said he prefers the idea of “going with the flow” and “not wanting to label everything.” He still does the Pledge of Allegiance, he said, because that is “what you’re meant to do” and what he was taught.
“For me, it’s like, a flag’s a flag, and it matters as much as what [meaning] you put into it,” Mata said.
But Mata also said that he admires those who do feel passionately enough to protest for things they believe in.
“I always empathize with those people, whether they are right or left wing, that they care so much about something that they show these protests and they go out and do stuff about it, because I’m in the middle ground,” Mata said.
Caldwell also noted the propensity for the flag to serve as a symbol for particular groups.
“The flag and the flag lapel pin became almost a symbol of conservatism until 9/11,” Caldwell said. “And after 9/11, people across the entire spectrum were proud to display the flag, and the flag lapel pin was not a symbol of conservative ideology.”
Caldwell said he continues to wear his flag pin and put up his flag at his home on national holidays because he is not willing to “default” to that meaning of the symbol.
Shearer said that he thinks that current political debate revolving around the flag and other national symbols stems from fear.
“The economy is not what it used to be,” Shearer said. “My son is 23. His perspective on the future is much less optimistic than mine was when I was 23.”
Additionally, having lived on both coasts and in the middle of the United States, Shearer said that many people on the coasts do not realize that some living in the middle of the country are struggling.
“The Rust Belt hasn’t recovered from the collapse of Ford, GM and others,” he said. “There are just large swaths of the country where people … they’re just afraid. They don’t know what the future’s going to be.”
When he was growing up, the concept of the melting pot was seen as a source of strength in the country, Shearer said, but now he sees people pulling back to “comfortable situations” and “people like them” as a response to this fear.
“My perception is we’ve become more divided, so naturally symbols become very important to groups,” he said. “To some, the flag is the symbol of patriotism and love of country, and to some it’s a source of oppression. And the problem is when you’re divided, people are not inclined to then step back and look at the other person’s side.”
Follow Cassandra Stephenson on Twitter: @CassieKay27