Community Column: Flag Day — Wave The Thing But Don’t Worship It

Special Column

Contributed by Katie Green

Editors Note: Community Columns are meant to provide a space for public figures, members of the public or other public staff to share ideas and opinions. Community Columns are submitted to Valley Sentinel.

The radio this morning has paid homage to Flag Day by playing some of my favorite music –for example, John Philip Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”– and some that I have an aversion to –e.g. our national anthem, which is unsingable and filled with bloodthirsty war images besides. I much prefer “America the Beautiful”, which contains stirring, idealistic phrases that move beyond a narrow definition of patriotism and aspire to something far better, such as “crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”

WPR also played a number of Negro spirituals, all of which have become part of the American canon linked to this day. There are ironies buried there, in that African Americans were barred for generations from serving in the military for fear they would use their weapons to take vengeance on their oppressors. And ironic that it was during the Civil War, fought over the right of states to retain and even expand slavery, that the first Flag Day ceremony was held in Hartford, Connecticut to pray for preservation of the Union. That was a one time event, however, not repeated the next year.

Wisconsin played an important role in making Flag Day an official annual observance. In 1885, Bernard Cigrand, a teacher at a small, stone grammar school in Waubeka, on the banks of the Wisconsin River near Milwaukee, staged the first formal celebration for the anniversary of when Congress adopted the stars & stripes for our national flag on 14 June 1777. The next year Bernard wrote an editorial for the Chicago Argus newspaper suggesting that his 14 June celebration be perpetuated nationally as a time to honor the flag, and he criss-crossed the country promoting “patriotism.” Besides flag waving, I’m not sure how he defined the term. In yet another irony, the town of Waubeka was named for a Potawatomi chief who was friendly and helpful to the first white settlers to arrive in the 1840s but, along with his tribe, was forcibly removed from the area subsequently. Such treatment of First Peoples used to be thought patriotic, since natives were clearly inferior: barbarians, brown skinned, dressed funny, and were hunters and gatherers. You know, the usual story.