On Memorial Day, weaponizing the American flag

Civil rights leaders set against the American flag in a Philadelphia mural. Image courtesy Tony Fischer.

I spent Memorial Day weekend between Durham, where Pauli Murray did much of her growing up, and New Haven, where Yale recently named a college for her. Details about her astonishing life have been slipping into a wider and Whiter public awareness after years in which she was mainly recalled by memory-keepers in the movements she fomented and by suitably awestruck civil-rights historians. Murray cut paths through institutional stone long before Yale decided to carve her name in granite: first African American with a doctorate in law from that place; first Black woman ordained an Episcopal priest; making trouble by stepping to the front of the bus before Montgomery, and for a bid to desegregate UNC before Brown v. Board of Education. She was a muse—a source for Thurgood Marshall on desegregation, for Ruth Bader Ginsburg on gender equality, and for everyone on intersectionality, which she called simply the reality of being Black, a woman, and yet just one person, caught in the American twentieth century. And as Dolores Chandler recently wrote here, she sometimes lived in pain and confusion, partly because she loved women. She suffered in her desire as well as in her race and sex, in decades when it would have been unimaginable for the Attorney General of the United States to describe gender nonconformity as a civil-rights question, as Loretta Lynch recently did.

This holiday of flags puts me in mind of a passage from Proud Shoes, Murray’s history of her “American family” and her most-read book. In it, she recalls that, sometime around the fourth grade, she came to hate the American flag. She knew something from her family and teachers about the imperial adventures the flag flew over in the early twentieth century, and she knew intimately the segregation it sanctioned. “I hated George Washington,” she wrote.

The hate changed to something else after the death of her grandfather, a Union Army veteran who, according to Murray, prized his federal pension, as much for the honor it paid him as for the way it softened his impoverished old age. His grave, in a segregated cemetery near the old Durham-Chapel Hill road, was entitled to an American flag, and Murray began to spend Memorial Day and other holidays tending the grave, passing hours to let White drivers see her close to the flag. “Every May,” she wrote, “I walked proudly through a field of Confederate flags.”

Murray continued, “I wanted the white people driving by to see this banner, and me standing by it.” She didn’t discover reverence for the flag; she discovered that it was a weapon, a way of saying to her neighbors, “I am more American than you. My family is more American than yours.” Not just as American: more American. It was, to be precise, a piece of appropriation, which implied a new meaning for the thing appropriated, and for the country it represented. She wrote, “There was little identity in my mind between the Union flag which waved over my grandfather’s grave, and the United States flag on which I looked with so much skepticism at West End School. It would be a while yet before I realized that the two were the same.” In a sense, of course, they were not.

Murray’s defiant appropriation of patriotic gesture encapsulates what we now know about Memorial Day: although the holiday was instituted in a spirit of White reconciliation (with the official story that it originated in the ecumenical memory of Union dead alongside Confederates), it was actually preceded by Black South Carolinians’ reburial of Union soldiers from a mass grave in Charleston, and subsequent decoration of their burial sites. In a larger sense, Murray’s gesture is part of a counter-tradition that runs back to Frederick Douglass saying, a few years before the Civil War, that the Fourth of July was a White holiday for a White nation, but the principle of the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal,” was about him. In fact, it was his. Although the counter-tradition is most memorable in the register of defiance, a celebratory version of it has been everywhere this last year in “Hamilton.” The mega-hit musical’s casting of Black and Latino performers as American founders makes literal the best thing anyone has ever been able to say for the hypocritical and blood-smeared early American talk of freedom and equality: that although the words were said by and for an all-White propertied class, they could be inhabited, occupied, by anyone. That occupation is the world turned upside down, and it is the revelation that upside-down is the closest it has yet come to right.

It is no accident that that “Hamilton” comes in the last years of the first black president’s time in the White House. It fictionalizes and generalizes his fact: if the president is black, why not George Washington? Murray’s version is infinitely more tenuous, a personal bit of defiance in a place (and a moment of history) that she as a child had no reason to expect to see change. She was using her grandfather’s flag to express solidarity with an unreal, possible America—not actual Washington D.C., which approved the racial subordination that Raleigh imposed, but maybe the glimpsed America her grandfather had in mind at times during the war to break the Confederacy.

The theme of one of Murray’s most stirring poems, “Dark Testament,” is that hope, love, freedom are empty words (“a crushed stalk … a bird’s wing broken by a stone”) without places where they can live. We should not ask for these things alone, she says, but for a world to hold them, “a song of kindliness and a world in which to sing it.” Her defiant flag did not announce, or even stand for, such a world, but it held open a resistant space in which to work for one.


The most consequential meditation on American life in several years, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, is partly an argument that identifying with any version of “America” means being naïve about history, the present, and, very possibly, the future. Aziz Rana’s probing essay in n+1 brings together what many have said in many ways: The “redemptive” story about making America be America at last is too much of a cheat, looks away from the depth and persistence of violence, exploitation, and inequality, and opens space for the cynicism of conservatives who invoke Douglass and King to condemn affirmative action. Perhaps there is a perverse affinity between the way this redemptive story can make things seem easy and smooth and the indignation of aggrieved Trump voters, cheering his denunciations of “political correctness,” who want to know why we are still talking about this, why we don’t all feel equal yet.

Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right, as Ani DiFranco taught. Pauli Murray held her grandfather’s flag right. Much of the country’s history is a reminder that, if nearly all weapons favor the powerful, a weaponized flag is no exception. Pauli Murray, a Durham neighbor whom I missed by a few decades, is now starting to become, like King and Douglass, a name that institutions want to claim as their own. Maybe, like them, she will end up as a figure with as many meanings as the flag. She is one way to a Memorial Day.