When I was a kid, Mrs. Kleinbrook, our neighbor across the street, had a flagpole in her front yard. She was the original occupant of that house, built on the Detroit city line shortly after World War II. She often told us about traveling from Army base to Army base with her husband during the war, so it seemed natural she’d fly the American flag.
Mrs. K was a neighborhood pillar — part grandmother, part saint — always in motion, hosting something for Our Lady of Grace Church, funding someone’s schooling, proselytizing for a doughnut shop just opened by a newly arrived Cambodian family.
Every election year, Mrs. Kleinbrook would stake political signs in her yard, usually for Republican candidates. She was deeply active in a local anti-abortion organization, often helping women who kept the children they had considered aborting.
In long conversations that always seemed to unfold as they leaned on one or the other’s fence, my mom, who strongly supports a woman’s right to choose, found polite ways to disagree. She’d joke that she picked her candidates by looking at Mrs. K’s yard signs and then punching the hole for whoever else was on the ballot. They’d chuckle and move on, knowing that whatever either needed, the other had her back. And their families’ too.
Mrs. Kleinbrook’s flagpole has been clanging in my ears, as we near Election Day.
It started a few weeks ago, when I noticed a steady trickle of tweets from liberals: Let’s take back the flag. They cited their outrage that it’d been carried at rallies by white supremacists. Or they’d just watched a truck drive by, festooned by Trump campaign banners and American flags. Sometimes, the tweets were pleas: “When this is all over, we have to take back the American flag from MAGA. It pains me to look at it now.”
The message resonated. Why should the flag — which to me, had always stood for liberty, equality and the common good, moral constructs central to our national narrative and, yes, espoused by Mrs. K — be co-opted by one party over the other? Particularly by the current iteration of the Republican Party, which seems to stand less for Lincoln and his unifying ideals than for Trump and his divisive brand of demagoguery?
And yet: How do we take back a flag that, for too many, feels like a threat?
Damon Young, author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” distilled it well in Time magazine last year. He wrote about a bicycle trip he took with his wife and two friends from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland: “The less Black people, the more flags. The more flags, the less welcome we felt at restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations.” His 2017 trip coincidentally occurred the same month as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. He continued:
“(B)ut a deep ambivalence for the flag existed long before then for me. The performative patriotism that wields the flag as a signal of how American you happen (to be) has deep correlations with the sort of anti-Blackness that generally treats us like we’ve crashed a wedding we weren’t invited to.”
The same year America celebrated its Bicentennial, Stanley Forman shot his now iconic photo during a Boston busing protest. You’ve seen it: A white protester appears to be trying to impale a Black man (civil rights lawyer Ted Landsmark) on a flagpole.
Conversely, the flag also rallied Northerners to support the Union during the U.S. Civil War after Southerners targeted it at Fort Sumter. As the late art historian Albert Boime wrote in 1997, it was during the Civil War that “the flag first attained cult status, paradoxically, when we were literally at war with each other.”
It isn’t easy to quantify what a symbol means to people. A July 2019 Pew survey found that displaying the flag ranked last among activities required to be a good citizen (voting topped the list). However, only a quarter of people who identified as Democrats said it was very important, as opposed to half of those who said they were Republicans.
Perhaps you remember the sudden explosion of flags in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. National surveys at the time found that as many as 74% to 82% of Americans flew them. Linda Skitka, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, attempted to suss out the motivation behind the overwhelming display. In her 2005 study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, she found that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, patriotism rather than nationalism drove the display.
“Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred,” Jill Lepore wrote in “This America: The Case for the Nation.” “To confuse the one for the other is to pretend that hate is love and fear is courage.”
President Donald Trump has called himself a nationalist and has used the flag as a battering ram. But it’s hardly the most affective way to use the flag.
The flag in American art is a secular icon: Think “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Think Shirley Firestone’s 1964 painting of Harriet Tubman, the colors of the flag beaming out from the folds of her skirt.
In the 20th century, Jasper Johns famously painted the flag, stripping it of ritual, which, as Boime wrote, encouraged viewers to explore “what inevitably proved to be no more than a common piece of fabric.” David Hammons, who’s originally from Springfield, Illinois, has used the flag to powerful effect. Perhaps his most widely known work is an untitled piece from 1990, now popularly known as “African American Flag.” It’s become a symbol of Black pride, combining the pattern of the American flag with the black, red and green of the Pan-African flag.
This should not be confused with the “Thin Blue Line” flag that’s been spotted on front lawns and Trump rallies. That flag, according to the Marshall Project, uses a single cobalt-blue stripe to bisects an American flag drained of its color, reduced to black and white.
While I was talking to Skitka about her 9/11 flag study, our conversation eventually turned to how many competing flags and banners are visible this campaign season.
“It’s a little unnerving,” she said. “Symbolically, flags are tied to war. It’s symbolic of the culture war in the United States.
“Which group inside the United States gets to claim the flag?”
But then that circles back again to “Why do we fly the flag?” Perhaps its greatest value is to challenge us to grapple with this question. A flag’s honor doesn’t flow from its colors or shapes. People honor flags to signal common values, shared with our common neighbors. Perhaps the best gift this election season has given us is that it’s helped us to see the flag again — and to see it differently.
Carl “Gus” Porter III is the fourth-generation owner of W.G.N. Flag & Decorating Co., a 104-year-old company on Chicago’s South Side that sells flags and banners for seemingly everything. I asked whether he’s seen any change in American flag sales, and he said his biggest problem right now is finding any to sell: American flags are back-ordered, and American manufacturers have been stymied by the pandemic.
Porter said they always see swings in who buys the flag. Democrats tend to buy when Democrats are elected, and vice versa. The Chicago flag, however, is always in demand. He noted that this summer, when his company was servicing city flagpoles, American and Chicago flags were cut down during some protests. (Illinois flags? Never touched.)
As we chatted, I mentioned Mrs. Kleinbrook’s flagpole and how I remembered her struggling with it. She’d manage to raise the flag, but then often couldn’t lower it. If we spotted her yanking on the ropes, my mom would yell for my dad to go help her. Which, of course, he did. That’s what good neighbors do.