Wissot: Hail to the Red, White, Black and Blue
The American flag was commissioned by order of Congress on June 14, 1777. In the subsequent years, the flag added stars 27 times to the blue background as new states joined the union. The current flag hasn’t changed since Hawaii was admitted as the 50th state in August of 1959.
The original congressional flag decree stated as follows: “Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
I would like to see a change made to the flag’s design for the first time since its inception, one that reflects a “new constellation” by acknowledging our sordid racial past. I propose that the 50 white stars representing the 50 states, some who entered the union as slave states and some who were admitted as free, be equally divided into 25 white stars and 25 black stars against a blue field.
The black stars, equal in number to the white stars, would symbolize the 400-year struggle for racial equality in this country. The flag that was created in 1777 symbolizing America’s declaration of independence from England did not change the status of enslaved African Americans.
They had to wait for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to celebrate their own independence from White America. They had to wait until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865 for slavery to be constitutionally abolished; for the 14th Amendment to be ratified in 1868 guaranteeing “equal protection under the law for all persons,” which at the time meant only white and black male citizens, but later included other communities of color, women, the disabled, and most recently, the LGBTQ community.
I am a proud Jewish-American born in 1945. My father born in 1916 experienced anti-semitism when he applied to colleges in the 1930s that refused to admit Jews; when he was later denied a business bank loan because the loan officer was loathe to grant them to applicants with Hebraic looking facial features; when he was told by a Connecticut motel desk clerk that the vacancy sign out front wasn’t intended for “his kind.”
I was spared that degree of discrimination in my life. But a Black man who is now 75 like me was not. When he was born, public accommodations, transportation, schools, universities, restaurants, movie theaters, cemeteries, swimming pools, bathrooms, and even phone booths, were segregated by law in the South and by law and tacit agreement in other regions of the country.
When he was 9, the Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision; when he was 10, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy, was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a grocery store in Money, Mississippi; when he was 12, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, so that nine black students could attend Central High School; when he was 19, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation in all facets of public life; when he was 20, the Voting Rights act of 1965 was passed because the 15th Amendment which granted African Americans the franchise in 1870 was dishonored in the breach for almost a century; when he was 22, 16 states in the country still had laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage, laws that were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court that same year; when he was 36, the last reported lynching of a black man occurred in Mobile, Alabama, ending a horrific custom that took the lives of more than 4,000 African-Americans beginning in 1877.
Twenty-five black stars on a blue background will not erase the awful memories of those barbaric acts in the minds of many as old as me who lived through them. But it will proclaim the fact that our almost 250-year history of slavery, followed by our 100-year history of legally and socially sanctioned segregation, is not concealed but instead represented on our most readily recognizable national symbol.
Louis Armstrong evoked the anguish of what it meant to be Black in America when he recorded the Fats Waller composition, “Black and Blue” in 1929. The song is a poignant testament to what African Americans routinely experienced in a largely segregated and racially volatile country more than 90 years ago.
The lyrics are heart-breaking and illuminating. The third and fourth verses speak to the pain and fear and despair Blacks felt and still feel living here.
“I’m white inside but that don’t help my case
’cause I can’t hide what is in my face.”
“How will it end ain’t got a friend
My only sin is in my skin
What did I do to be so black and blue.”
“My only sin is in my skin” has been the complaint of African Americans brought and born here since the nation’s advent. It’s why honoring half the stars on the flag by darkening them black would serve as a balm on the wound caused by our historical obsession with skin pigmentation.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.
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