What does the American flag represent to you? That is a question I presented to myself recently while watching videos of the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Those people identify themselves as patriots and when they are gathered together for a rally or just to socialize, it is easy to lose count of the amount of American flags in attendance. Because of their tendency to be violent, aggressive and racist, some now say the American flag holds the same weight as the confederate flag.
I am an American. In my teen years I, too, have worn our country's flag on various occasions such as the Labor Day parade here in Brooklyn with pride alongside my friends who wave the flags of their families that have roots in other countries. However, from my years as an undergraduate student to the present, the more I educated myself on the true history of this country outside of the whitewashed version taught in our schools, dressing myself in anything stars and stripes ceased being an option for my wardrobe.
So why do I care now what the American flag represents to myself or anyone else for that matter? A few years ago I started researching my family's history with the assistance of online websites and family DNA services such as ancestry.com and 23 & Me. What I've learned during the time consuming process of finding my roots is that I have African and European ancestry of many countries and nations with a speck of Indigenous North American in the mix and that for generations, my DNA and those that shared my genetic makeup has resided here in North America for several generations. I have family members that have shed blood, sweat, tears, voluntarily and involuntarily to build this nation and have family members that have worn the uniforms of the U.S. military and have gone into combat for the freedom of this land. This is our country and I want to be proud like so many others to claim it but being an American, specifically a Black American, all I feel is embarrassment and betrayal from every leader and radical who calls themselves a patriot of the United States.
So, I decided to set up my camera in front of my house in Bed-Stuy and decided to ask strangers what does the American flag represent to them. I wanted to learn what others think and have conversations on their "why". Many of the participants in this portrait project said they've never considered this question and had a difficult time answering honestly and clearly and for others their response was almost knee-jerk in nature.
Scroll to view their photos and read what everyone had to say.
"Honestly, the flag doesn't give me the warmest of feelings. There was an enormous amount of blood spilled in building this country. So even though I'm American, I still feel conflicted when discussing it and what it represents."
"False representation of freedom."
"Oof, that's hard. As of late, it has such a negative connotation. I'd like to be proud of the flag but I don't feel that right now."
"To me the flag is an illusion of an idea of "freedom" [and] stands for the unattainable 'American dream'."
"It represents what people want it to, so it changes."
""I think it was MEANT to represent unity but since we aren't actually united, it represents a lie."
"The flag represents a false sense of freedom and hope in this country. It represents pain, blood, sweat and tears we are forced to endure everyday. The flag is not a symbol of peace, but a symbol of terror."
"It represents history, space and change."
"It does not represent me at all."
"To me it represents enslavement."
"The flag is a huge disappointment to me. For all it represents to people globally, I think that the reality of the American dream is that this was a country built on genocidal violence that exists to continue it's oppressive, carceral, capitalist, colonial history at the expense of collectivism, community, and humanity. Its the world's best propaganda symbol."
"The flag means to me 50% positive and 50% negative. But those odds is all I need. I'm a soldier."
"The American flag means freedom. Freedom to do whatever it is [needed] to get rich or die trying. If you don't get caught or die you will achieve real freedom..."
"A corporation with one side telling the story."
"I know the history of the flag so now I have a different view. But, proud to be an American nonetheless."
"The flag has multiple meanings to me with some of those meanings in complete opposition of each other such as the flag as a unifying symbol for the country but at the same time it is a symbol of a nation built on division and segregation."
"The flag doesn't mean very much to me. I think there are lies and fallacies associated with it but to many, it symbolizes positive and powerful things."
"The flag to me represents both good and bad about America."
"As a military child I see it as [a symbol of] freedom and oppression, saviors and terrorists. As a Mexican-American the flag also represents a stolen land and being demonized and even though my mother gave 33 years of her life to this country in the Air Force, this flag will never represent me."
--Marc Antoni M.
"Love and hate emotions behind the flag."
The American Flag means to me the idea of freedom. Yes, some try to say it symbolizes oppression but when you remember history, it is supposed to represent liberty and justice for all."
"Potential to be great and terrible at the same time."
"American propaganda to push ideas and messages that it [the United States] can decide to uphold or not."
"Hope and freedom at first when I moved from Paris 26 years ago. Now, I'm not sure since the Jan. 6th and congress bullshit."
"The flag represents opportunity."
"Privilege and domination."
"White domination. Politics. Military. Bullies."
"At this point I'm struggling to even understand [what it represents]. With my family coming from the Caribbean, what they desired and what they've experienced are two very different things. The land of milk and honey is what they expected. Struggle and tears are what they received. I appreciate the sacrifices they've made for me and what I've been able to receive while being here in America but it ain't been peaches nor cream."