Family, Flags and the Fourth of July: A Meditation

July 4, 2010, 12:31 pm

We at Tenured Radical are conflicted on the subject of July 4. We are not nationalists, much less homonationalists, whatever our critics might assert (although we will cop to being homos.) And yet, July 4 is one of the few secular holidays on the calendar, and cannot help but provoke thoughts about the national past.

My father always made a big production of hanging out the flag on Independence Day: in addition to having been an Eagle Scout and Jack Armstrong type of character, he was a veteran of several different government services in WWII and the Cold War. He knew how to tie all the knots on the flagpole so that the flag draped correctly, how it ought to be folded and put away, and how to perform a blind information drop using a newspaper. In my preteen years, when I announced my intention to have a career either as a spy or a private investigator, he bought me The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook for my birthday, which gave perfect instructions on how to do a two-man and a three-man surveillance, how to lift a fingerprint using items found around the house, and how to collect and analyze forensic evidence (which led to some derivative skills that remain useful to this day.)
While the maternal side of the family is far more likely to hang a flag on July 1, Dad’s bunch got to New England early enough to participate in the gruesome business of colonization, expropriation of Indian lands, and Revolution. By the early 19th century, one member of the paternal branch was farming in southern New Jersey, and some historical research my late father did pointed to the probability that they did so with the forced labor of enslaved people. He was somewhat equivocal on this point, but — aside from the ties between New Jersey and the plantation states, and New Jersey’s failure to abolish legal slavery until 1866 — I am pretty clear that a large black family and a large white family with the same surname, living in the same area well into the twentieth century, is not a coincidence. What do you think?
Another part of the family from which I am directly descended originally landed in Massachusetts and migrated west to settle in the NorthAdams-Pittsfield region (does this not point to probable participation in King Philip’s War and other anti-Native American atrocities?) Evidence also shows that descendants of that group served in the American Revolution and in the Union Army during the Civil War: we have several elderly fowling pieces and a humongous sword in an umbrella stand at home as lasting tokens of their patriotism. Another North Adams ancestor is said to have participated in devising the blasting technology that was essential to completing the Hoosac Tunnel in 1875. This project, which sought to connect Massachusetts factories to the lucrative project of American territorial expansion, was initiated in 1819, but did not break ground until 1848 (ring any bells?) It was one of the deadliest, longest and most expensive railroad projects in United States history and was nicknamed “the bloody pit” for the number of (Irish immigrant?) workers it consumed. But the blasting technology had greater historical significance, since it eventually allowed railroads to be built through the western mountain ranges rather than over and around them.
Our virtues as a family are equalled by our flaws, I’m afraid. Flag rituals are a tradition that I do not perpetuate, in part because of the forms of flag worship that have been associated with war and right-wing patriotism in my lifetime, and in part because I simply know too much history. However, I do like the above photograph, and it is my contribution to today’s celebrations. It is a flag garden outside the Columbus, Ohio Statehouse, snapped with the iPhone early last month when I was there for a conference. The flower flag was planted by the Columbus Garden Club; besides being a civic act of a kind rarely seen in Eastern Postindustrial Cities, I thought it was really clever in a kind of bourgeois chic way, and very Ohio — like Jello molds with marshmallows, and massive fireworks displays, which I also like.
So happy July 4, everyone! Celebrate it in your own way, and stay safe.
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