The flag of the United States of America is a potent symbol that is used not only to identify a nation but also to express ideas about its state of affairs. Within the red, white, and blue of the emblem is an iconic design that has been variously reimagined to convey pride, anger, solidarity, or exclusion. In times of conflict and in moments of despair, flags offer us ways to take positions—whether expressing allegiances or refusing engagement. Artists and others draw upon flag imagery to call attention to social issues and provoke conversations.
Within the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) there are hundreds of objects and images which prominently feature the United States flag. Our latest special exhibition, “Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience.” includes artistic depictions of the U.S. flag that reveal the alienation and injustice Black Americans experience. From our diverse holdings at NMAAHC, we have gathered five objects that explore the significance and symbology of the U.S. flag in African American culture and history.
Untitled (Flag) by Jean-Michel Basquiat
For this flag work included in our "Reckoning" exhibition, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat uses composition notebook paper as his canvas. The unconventional, humble material makes the work feel accessible. But, the fact the untitled work is produced with crumpled paper makes one wonder if this flag and those for whom it stands are potentially disposable. Similarly, the seemingly unfinished brushstrokes in the red stripes suggest a harried, unfinished nation.
Within the framework of a well-known design like the American flag, Basquiat invokes a sense of the unknown through his repetition of the letter “X.” The artist used a typewriter to produce rows and clusters of X’s throughout the composition, conjuring up powerful ideas about its meaning from African American history. We know that formerly enslaved people used the “X” as a signature mark when they could not write their names. Black Muslims employed the “X” to reject and replace surnames inherited from slaveholders. What did Basquiat want to convey with his X? The artist places formations of the smaller black “X” primarily against the red and stain-filled background of the stripes. The result is a typed black “X” that is visually insistent, a relentless mark that holds its own against the dominating white “X” in the upper blue quadrant where the stars would typically appear. These potent juxtapositions on such a small surface make for an arresting artistic interpretation of the U.S. flag.
Scrimshaw etched with patriotic theme owned by John Wesley Cromwell
Even more unconventional than a flag made of notebook paper is the use of a whale’s tooth for this miniature work of art, called a scrimshaw. A scrimshaw is any engraved piece of bone, ivory, or shell. It is estimated this scrimshaw was made sometime during the early 19th century, when such intricate carvings were a popular shipboard art.
While it is unknown who completed this scrimshaw carving, the image used is considered a variant of a patriotic theme depicted by renown painter and engraver, Edward Savage. Like Savage’s engraving of “Liberty in the Form of the Goddess of Youth, Giving Support to the Bald Eagle” (1796), this carving oozes with national pride, in this case showing a personified Liberty donning a patriotic shield and holding the American flag.
This scrimshaw was owned by John Wesley Cromwell, one of the cofounders of The American Negro Academy with Alexander Crummell. Cromwell’s granddaughter, scholar Adelaide Cromwell, inherited the scrimshaw and recounts that it may have belonged her great grand uncle James, a sailor in the Civil War. With its maritime and military associations, this humble but precious carving on a whale’s tooth passed through three generations before making its way to the NMAAHC. This flag-themed family heirloom speaks to the value of patriotism and the resonance of “liberty” for black Americans in the 19th century.
Untitled (Black in America) by Romare Bearden
This lithographic print was designed by Romare Bearden, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and creative visual artists. Bearden was born in 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over his career he rose to fame for his talent in collage but experimented with oils, watercolors, and prints. This 1974 print features an abstracted American flag and a man’s profile. The head and blue rectangle resemble simplified buildings and the downward red stripes similarly mimic the light rays and shadows cast by those forms. Though the forms are abstracted, Bearden uses rich colors and negative space to create an iconic illustration. The fragmented composition suggests that nationality for black Americans may be an assemblage of parts, rather than simply the association to a country.
The original design served as a maquette, or preliminary mock-up, for a collage called "Black in America" made from oil and paper. It was used as a catalogue cover for an exhibition titled “8 Artistes Afro-Américains” held in Geneva, Switzerland in 1971, which included Bearden’s work. Bearden continued to experiment with elements of this design—the head in profile, the radiating lines, and the bifurcated composition—as he developed ideas for collages and murals in the next decade. Yet, the stoic representation of a black figure boxed in by the flag theme makes this work particularly memorable.
New Age of Slavery by Patrick Campbell
Unmistakable in its flag imagery, "New Age of Slavery" is a watercolor created by artist and illustrator Patrick Campbell that is currently on view in the museum's "Reckoning" exhibition. Campbell initially shared the work on social media in September 2014, shortly after he painted it; but this haunting work didn’t gain widespread attention immediately.
By the time that Campbell reposted "New Age of Slavery" on his commercial Facebook page on December 3, 2014, the image had gone viral. The painting was Campbell’s reaction to the deaths of multiple African Americans, from Trayvon Martin, to Mike Brown, to Eric Garner, whose last words, “I Can’t Breathe,” had encapsulated a season of tragic, senseless killings of unarmed black men. In Campbell’s flag, bodies of men, women, and children hang, lynched in the seemingly blood-splattered red stripes. Violent scenes of hunt and capture appear in the flag’s blue field, amidst cracked white stars that resemble badges.
"New Age of Slavery" became part of an inventory of imagery unofficially associated with Black Lives Matter campaigns and movements. Circulated on Instagram and Facebook, Campbell’s art was adopted as a profile picture by social media users who did not yet know who created the illustration. Following the grand jury decision not to indict the officer that placed Garner in a fatal chokehold, Campbell reposted the image and identified himself as the artist. His post gained thousands of responses, including requests to purchase merchandise featuring the graphic. His "New Age of Slavery" captured collective feelings of loss and anger, and exposed the false claims of equal protection under the law.
Placard with "The Future is Nasty" used during the Women's March
In response to the changing political climate following the election of Donald Trump, over four million people participated in the 2017 Women’s March a day after his inauguration. Many signs at the march poked fun at some of the crass comments Trump made prior to his election. This sign was made by Dr. Ayeisha Brinson, an African American woman and attendee who marched with a group of women from various races and cultures. The handwritten text on the left side reads, “The future is nasty.” The phrase is a reference to Trump’s comment calling his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, “a nasty woman.”
The focal point of the placard is the right side, a firm response to the proposed Muslim ban. The image shows a Muslim woman wearing a hijab with an American flag design with the text around her reading, “We the People Are Greater Than Fear.” The model for the photo is Munira Ahmed, an American with Bangladeshi heritage who is immensely proud of both her nationality and religion. Artist Shepard Fairey, who is well-known for his “Hope” poster of Barack Obama, designed the image which was then reproduced as an advertisement in the Washington Post. Brinson’s repurposing of the advertisement into a homemade placard for the Women’s March highlights the social and political impact of graphic design. The flag and phrase “we the people” speaks to the solidarity of Americans standing together despite differences of race, gender, or religion.