Flag Days: The Red, the Black & the Green

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
A quick heads up, this episode has some offensive language.

Crowd:
[HANDS UP. DON’T SHOOT. HANDS UP. DON’T SHOOT. HANDS UP. DON’T SHOOT.]

Roman Mars:
After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd last year, tens of thousands of people all over the world took to the streets to protest police violence against Black people.

Crowd:
[WHOSE LIVES MATTER? // BLACK LIVES MATTER!]

Christopher Johnson:
And if you look at images from these marches, you’ll probably start to notice a common color scheme. Lots of red, black, and green.

Roman Mars:
99PI producer, Christopher Johnson.

Christopher Johnson:
You’ll see those colors everywhere. Red, black, and green picket signs and banners. Red, black, and green hoodies and hats. And red, black, and green flags.

Mwariama Kamau:
Sometimes it’s good to see that red, black, and green flag. Particularly, when it’s times of strife and people are outraged and angry and they start to come to that realization that we’re not getting anywhere with the begging.

Christopher Johnson:
Mwariama Kamau has several of these flags in different sizes. Including a huge one that he likes to fly outside of his house. He says that wherever there are protests or demonstrations against threats to Black life, the red, black, and green will be there.

Mwariama Kamau:
When people are ready for more than what they’ve been getting and they’re ready to, you know, challenge the system, then you see the red, black, and green flags come out.

Roman Mars:
And not just at demonstrations. This tri-color scheme has been used on t-shirts, on high-top chucks, and in works of art that have sold for millions of dollars.

Christopher Johnson:
The flag was invented to unite Black people all over the world who were living under racial repression. And when it first came into existence, the flag posed some bold questions about where Black people owed their loyalty. To the nations where their lives were demeaned and threatened or to a new nation, one they’d built entirely for themselves. And for hundreds of thousands of Black folks, the red, black, and green symbolize the answer. The flag has been in use since 1918, but I’m going to start a couple of decades before that, with the story of a super racist song about flags.

Colin Grant:
In the beginning of the 20th century, there was vaudeville, there was minstrelsy in America. And there was this tradition of “coon” songs. Can I say that word, Christopher?

Christopher Johnson:
This is writer and historian Colin Grant. He’s talking about an old style of American music that’s named after a racial slur. Coon songs were exactly what they sound like. The lyrics were deeply racist, based on gross stereotypes about Black life and speech patterns. Usually sung over ragtime piano.

Roman Mars:
And in 1900, one of the biggest songs of the genre came out.

Colin Grant:
There was a very famous coon song called “Every Race Has a Flag, But the Coon.” It was a song that lampooned Black people for not having their own flag and lampooned them for the idea that they should have their own flag.

Christopher Johnson:
Two white composers wrote the song. And I got somebody to play the sheet music for me. Here’s what it sounds like.

[PIANO CLIP OF “EVERY RACE HAS A FLAG, BUT THE COON”]

Christopher Johnson:
In the lyrics, the head of a Black social club gets up to speak and he says, he’s just come back from a labor day parade where he saw all these different races, proudly waving their national flags: Ireland has her Harp and Shamrock, England floats her Lion bold, Even China waves a Dragon, Germany an Eagle gold. And then he comes to the US: And what won’t Yankees do, For the Old Red White and Blue…

The lyrics seem to drive at the idea that the stars and stripes didn’t belong to Black people. That they need something else to represent them. The song went on to propose a flag for Black people that’s crammed with all these racist stereotypes.

Roman Mars:
“Every Race Has a Flag” was performed by more than a hundred touring vaudeville acts and was part of the vaudeville circuit for more than three decades. It was huge, which isn’t surprising given the era. The US wasn’t even two generations out of slavery. Jim Crow and “separate but equal” were in full effect. Lynching and other terrorist violence surged.

Christopher Johnson:
Black Americans were getting the message from all sides, including popular music, that they weren’t respected or safe or really even considered fully American. Now, as gross as the song was the lyrics hinted at something that did resonate for Black folks-

Colin Grant:
That actually a flag or something that enabled people to be welded together. That idea was one which many Black people understood.

Roman Mars:
And in particular, a Jamaican-born labor organizer and journalist named Marcus Garvey. In the early 1900s, Garvey bounced around Central and South America trying to start some advocacy newspapers fighting for working Black people, but he wasn’t having much luck.

Christopher Johnson:
Garvey wanted more work opportunities and some adventure. He was also curious to see how Black people like himself were living in other parts of the British empire. So in 1912, he set off across the Atlantic.

Colin Grant:
Young Marcus Garvey in his mid-20s, he went to England. At that time for someone in the British colonies, London is where you would go to try to establish yourself to say, “I have arrived. I’m going to partake of this blended imperial enterprise, which the British had ruled over for centuries. He’s going to go to the heart of the empire.”

Roman Mars:
In London, Garvey landed a gig in a newspaper that carried stories about Black life throughout the diaspora. He also got a pass to the British Museum, which had a large library.

Christopher Johnson:
Garvey began reading ideas totally new to him. Ideas that came to be known as Pan-Africanism.

Hakim Adi:
Pan-Africanism is concerned with the unity and liberation of Africa and people of African heritage. But I like to think of it as a mighty river with many streams and currents.

Roman Mars:
Hakim Adi, a professor of African and Black Diaspora History, says the source of that river is the transatlantic slave trade.

Christopher Johnson:
Slavery forced together millions of people from across the African continent. Adi believes Pan-Africanism started there more than 400 years ago. It developed as those people with different languages and cultures began to understand their shared conditions. And then the line to change them.

Roman Mars:
By the early 20th century, Black intellectuals had done a lot of thinking and writing about global Africa-centered Black identity.

Hakim Adi:
Ideas about repatriation, ideas about the importance of independence states like Haiti, like Ethiopia, like Liberia. Ideas about colonialism and what needed to be done to reform it and ideas about the glories of historic African civilization. So it’s in this sort of context that Garvey and his work develop.

Christopher Johnson:
One big part of this development was the way Garvey thought about Africa. As a kid, he’d been taught that Africans were primitive and backwards with no history to speak of. What he’d read in London told him the opposite was true. Garvey realized that Africa could be the center of racial pride for all of Black humanity.

Roman Mars:
Along with this Pan-African thought, Garvey was also heavily influenced by writings about Black self-sufficiency. The call to build a Black world that was economically, politically, and culturally independent from white society. Garvey combined these ideas with his new found Afro-centrism and a political philosophy started to emerge.

Christopher Johnson:
It had been just two years since Marcus Garvey had arrived in London. He’d left Jamaica hoping to find work and for a chance to see more of the world. But what he found in the heart of the British Empire – the seat of a massive colonial power – was the way he thought to free the entire Black world.

Roman Mars:
Garvey became convinced that Black people in Africa and throughout the diaspora share a common identity. They also shared a responsibility to advance the race and to protect it.

Christopher Johnson:
And the safest place for them was one built solely by Black hands.

Colin Grant:
The idea that you have to forge a nation of your own, that you couldn’t trust the man to look after yourself. When I say the man, I mean the imperial powers, were not going to further the likes of someone like Marcus Garvey or the Black people over whom they ruled and Garvey recognized through reading that actually he could conjure an alternative to the reality in which he found himself. He could change the narrative.

Roman Mars:
Garvey sailed back to the Caribbean in 1914, this was still several years before he’d make the red, black and green flag that he intended to stand for all of Black humanity. But he was already thinking about how to build the kind of nation that such a flag would represent.

Colin Grant:
On the ship going back from England to Jamaica, he famously said to himself, “Where is the Black man’s army? Where’s the Black man’s military chief?” He looked about and he saw none. All he saw was subjugation. And he said to himself, he was going to build the army and he was going to establish a new African Empire.

Christopher Johnson:
Garvey put his Pan-African thinking to work almost as soon as he landed in Jamaica. He formed an organization called the UNIA, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Its primary objective was to establish a universal confraternity among the race. Here’s how Garvey described the UNIA many years later.

MARCUS GARVEY:
[FELLOW CITIZENS OF AFRICA, I GREET YOU IN THE NAME OF THE UNIVERSAL NEGRO IMPROVEMENT ASSOCIATION. AN ORGANIZATION THAT SEEKS TO UNITE INTO ONE SOLID BODY, THE 400 MILLION NEGROS OF THE WORLD. FOR THE PURPOSE OF BETTERING OUR INDUSTRIAL, COMMERCIAL, EDUCATIONAL, SOCIAL, AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS.]

Christopher Johnson:
But the UNIA got off to a so-so start. Garvey once again, found himself strapped for cash. So to raise money and build a following, he left Jamaica again. This time he headed to Harlem and that’s where Marcus Garvey really took off as a race leader.

Colin Grant:
America is the seat of wealth, is a seat of promise, is a seat of any person who has some ambition that wants to have a bigger canvas to realize his ambition. So he was a young man in his mid to late 20s. He came with a hope and a prayer with not two farthings to rub together.

Roman Mars:
When Garvey arrived in 1916, Harlem was going through some major changes of its own. The Black population there had been searching for about a dozen years. Folks were coming from other parts of New York City, from down south, and like Garvey, from the Caribbean.

Christopher Johnson:
It was the beginning of the so-called New Negro era or the Negro Renaissance. In art and politics, Black Harlemites from throughout the diaspora argued furiously over what it meant to be Black.

Roman Mars:
Garvey jumped headlong into the debate. He’d stand on one of Harlem’s famous soapboxes and address a crowd with his nascent Pan-Africanist ideas.

Christopher Johnson:
But not everybody was feeling young Marcus Garvey, including the era’s most famous Black intellectual.

Colin Grant:
The premier man, the premier leader at that time was W.E.B. Du Bois and his organization, the NAACP, had captured the imagination of Black people. At the time Du Bois was ascendant.

Roman Mars:
W.E.B. Du Bois felt that full civil rights were the keys to Black freedom in a country that was hostile to their survival and peace. He believed in America as a Bible nation for Black folks. It would take real struggle, but there was a path for Black people to be whole and safe under the stars and stripes.

Christopher Johnson:
Marcus Garvey saw things totally differently. He came to believe that the fundamental problem for Black people in the West was the West itself. There was no way that US or Great Britain or any other Western power was going to let Black people be truly free.

MARCUS GARVEY:
[WE ARE NOT GOING TO BE A RACE WITHOUT A COUNTRY. GOD NEVER INTENDED IT, AND WE ARE NOT GOING TO ABUSE GOD’S CONFIDENCE IN US AS MEN. WE ARE MEN, HUMAN BEINGS-]

Christopher Johnson:
Garvey believed that Black people were, as he put it, a mighty race and at the only way for them to realize their full potential and to survive the anti-Blackness of the West was to come together and build a separate Black world.

MARCUS GARVEY:
[BABYLON DID IT, FRANCE UNDER NAPOLEON DID IT, AMERICA UNDER GEORGE WASHINGTON DID IT. AFRICA WITH 400 MILLION BLACK PEOPLE CAN DO IT. IF YOU CANNOT DO WHAT OTHER MEN HAVE DONE, WHAT OTHER NATIONS HAVE DONE, WHAT OTHER RACES HAVE DONE, THEN YOU HAD BETTER DIED!]

Roman Mars:
The more time Garvey spent in the US, the firmer that position became. In the South, he’d witnessed firsthand the struggles of rural Black America living under Jim Crow. He’d come from Jamaican society where class often outweighed race privilege. But in the US, he noticed that was flipped. A dynamic which inspired Garvey to center his message on Blackness.

Colin Grant:
He believed that actually race should come before class. That you only became powerful by uniting together or having a powerful voice through sheer numbers. Therefore, we should cleave together as Black people and place primacy on race.

Christopher Johnson:
Things happened that put the difference between Du Bois and Garvey in sharp relief and gave Garvey an opportunity to really articulate the Pan-Africanist vision that he’d been developing since his days at the British Museum.

WWI NEWS REEL:
[AMERICA IS CALLED TO ARM. FIRST VOLUNTEERS ARE CHEERED, THOUSANDS OF THEM AND MILLIONS MORE HAVE TO FOLLOW.]

Colin Grant:
When Woodrow Wilson brought America into the First World War under the idea that they were going to make the world safe for democracy, Garvey would stand on his soapbox and say that’s all very well Woodrow Wilson, but how about making Georgia safer for the Black man first?”

Roman Mars:
The US entered World War I in April 1917. That summer, there was large-scale racial violence in several cities. Some of the worst was in East St. Louis. A labor dispute turned into an all-out assault on the city’s Black residents. Whites set fire to Black neighborhoods. White snipers shot and killed Black people in the streets. There were mob beatings and lynchings.

Colin Grant:
The suddenness and the sheer shock of the violence of East St. Louis changed everybody. And yet Woodrow Wilson was going to take America into the war because America was this great savior, without recognizing that many of the transgressions that were going to be challenged in Europe also existed on home soil.

Christopher Johnson:
Sometimes Garvey would respond to racist violence with calls for revenge or armed self-defense. The boys in the NAACP stood firmly against this approach.

Roman Mars:
The two men also disagreed on whether or not Black men should enlist to fight in Europe, given the racial climate in the US.

Colin Grant:
So, whereas Du Bois said, “We must forget our differences between ourselves as Black people and the white men. We must put our shoulder to the wheel and fight the common enemy.” Garvey was saying the very opposite. Garvey was saying, “No, do not go off and fight the white man’s war for him, because come the end of the war things will revert to the way that they’d been before.”

Christopher Johnson:
And that’s exactly what happened.

Colin Grant:
As those soldiers came back, some of them were even lynched in their uniforms. There are many people who saw that Garvey had been right.

Roman Mars:
The idea that World War I would make things better for Black people didn’t pan out. In fact, as the war ended, cities and towns across the US exploded in an unprecedented wave of anti-Black violence. It had been 50 years since Black Americans were declared full citizens of the US. Black people had invested in the democratic process. And now they’d gone overseas and fought and died under the stars and stripes.

Christopher Johnson:
And yet the country’s deadly racial cursed system stayed firmly in place just as Marcus Garvey had predicted.

Colin Grant:
And I think that made him seem in the eyes of many Black people, a kind of prophet, a seer, someone who could see into the future, but also someone who was fearless. I mean, he was fearless and that was very empowering. People wanted to align themselves with him. They saw that he was a winner.

Christopher Johnson:
Garvey had been adding up events in cities like East St. Louis. He saw what was happening to Black soldiers and civilians alike. If the question was to whom do Black people own their loyalty, Garvey’s answer was clear. Black people own their loyalty first to other Black people.

Colin Grant:
He recognized that, in his mind anyway, that Black people were Africans in exile in America. And there was going to be no place for them. There was no future for them in America.

Christopher Johnson:
But Marcus Garvey had a plan.

Colin Grant:
They had to get out and had to establish their own place. And that place is going to be Africa.

Roman Mars:
Garvey believed that every single Black person on the planet was an African and that the continent was their birthright. He said, “Africa should be free of colonial rule so that Black people themselves can develop their own societies there.”

MARCUS GARVEY:
[FOR 250 YEARS, WE HAVE STRUGGLED UNDER THE BURDEN AND RIGORS OF SLAVERY. WE WERE MAIMED, WE WERE BRUTALIZED, WE WERE LIKE RAVAGED IN EVERY WAY. WE ARE MEN. WE HAVE HOPE, WE HAVE PASSIONS, WE HAVE FEELINGS, WE HAVE DESIRES JUST LIKE ANY OTHER RACE.]

Colin Grant:
And so Garvey would be calling for Africa for the Africans, those at home and those abroad.

MARCUS GARVEY:
[THE CRY IS RAISED ALL OVER THE WORLD OF CANADA FOR THE CANADIANS, OF AMERICA FOR THE AMERICANS, OF ENGLAND FOR THE ENGLISH OR FRANCE FOR THE FRENCH, OF GERMANY FOR THE GERMANS. DO YOU THINK IT IS UNREASONABLE THAT WE, THE BLACKS OF THE WORLD, SHOULD RAISE THE CRY OF AFRICA FOR THE AFRICANS?]

Roman Mars:
Garvey had long understood that he needed cohesion in order to achieve his dream of an independent Black world. The campaign for a homeland would fail if Black people didn’t see themselves as a single global race.

Colin Grant:
How are you going to cleave those people of that race together? What can you do to reimagine a society where whiteness is not the thing that defines you? You’re in opposition to whiteness. You are just Black. You are just your own people.

Christopher Johnson:
Ironically, part of the answer came from white people. Garvey drew on what he’d seen years earlier in London. He was inspired by how the British use symbols to flex their strength and to unite people across their vast empire.

Colin Grant:
He saw the great buildings of power. He saw these great columns with these admirals on top of them. He saw the way that the parties celebrated their history through symbols of conquest, through symbols of authority. I think he really understood the power of symbols to enliven people, to conjure this notion that you’re part of something greater than yourself.

Roman Mars:
Garvey had taken note of all the trappings of nationhood.

Colin Grant:
He was very influenced by the idea that the show of power came through things like the idea of planting yourself under a flag, of saying that you belong to a group. He recognized that that’s what imperial powers did.

Christopher Johnson:
Marcus Garvey filtered all of that inspiration through his Black nationalist prism and out came a flag. A banner that would stand for the entire Black world.

MARCUS GARVEY:
[OH YES, THE CAUSE IS GRAND, THE CAUSE IS GLORIOUS. SURELY WE SHALL NOT TURN BACK. OH, SAIL ON! SAIL ON! SAIL ON! OH, MIGHTY SHIP OF STATE, SAIL ON! SAIL ON UNTIL THE FLAG OF THE RED, THE BLACK AND THE GREEN IS PERCHED UPON THE HILLTOPS OF AFRICA.]

Roman Mars:
Garvey designed the Pan-African flag as a rectangle with three horizontal bars. Red on top, then black, and green at the bottom.

Christopher Johnson:
According to the UNIA, the red stands for the blood spilled in the fight to protect and defend Africa. Green represents Africa itself, its lushness and the motherland that Garveyites saw as their birthright, and black stands for the people of the continent and the diaspora.

Roman Mars:
Garvey introduced the Pan-African banner in 1918. And it quickly became the symbol of his rapidly growing international movement.

Christopher Johnson:
And that success came partly from the sheer potency of Garvey’s message, which he spread throughout the Americas during these exhausting speaking tours, plus the UNIAs newspaper circulated Garveyism all over the world.

Roman Mars:
And then there was Garvey’s single biggest recruiting tool. The UNIA’s commercial and passenger steamships called the Black Star Line.

Christopher Johnson:
Garvey wanted a fleet that would sail between ports in North and South America, the Caribbean and Africa. The Black Star Line would be 100% Black-owned and operated.

Roman Mars:
In a world where public transportation was often segregated and Black people were routinely limited to the lowest classes of travel, the Black Star Line promise, comfort, respect, safety, and speed to its Black passengers.

Christopher Johnson:
Five thougsan black folks showed up to watch the first Black Star Line ship leave its East Harlem Port in 1919. According to at least one observer, the crowd was delirious with excitement. The Black Star Line never got as big as Garvey had envisioned, but it inspired pride and hope in Black people around the world.

BLACK STAR LINE SONG:
[BROTHERS, SISTERS, COUNTRYMEN
YOU’D BETTER GET ON BOARD]

Roman Mars:
There was even a song about the ships recorded while they were still active.

BLACK STAR LINE SONG (CONT.):
[GWINE HOME ON THE BLACK STAR LINE
GWINE HOME ON THE BLACK STAR LINE]

Roman Mars:
Each and every one of those Black Star Line vessels hoisted the red, black, and green colors from its masts.

Colin Grant:
And when those ships came into harbor with UNI flags flapping, there was the most extraordinary excitement because that was the manifestation of something that they thought to be impossible. So the flags onboard the ships acted to promote the growth and the huge ambition and reach of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. But for the flags and the ships, there would be no mass movement. They needed those symbols in order for the movement to grow. Without those flags, there would be no Marcus Garvey in our memory.

Mwariama Kamau:
Garvey to me is the– I call him the standard-bearer of success under duress, who was blessed to do far more with less.

Christopher Johnson:
Mwariama Kamau is the official historian of the UNIA.

Mwariama Kamau:
Make sure you also call him the outrunner and the out-doer, and out of this world. Third rock from the Sun, bar none, as far as I’m concerned!

Christopher Johnson:
By the end of the decade, Garvey’s movement was massive. Two million people had joined the UNIA. It would eventually become the largest organization in Black history and its members proudly flew the Pan-African banner.

Mwariama Kamau:
You would see a lot of houses with red, black, and green flags outside, as well as mass meetings in local cities all around the globe. They would have red, black, and green flags whenever they had meetings. Red, black, and green buttons as well on the lapel. Even some of the ministers would have their robes with red, black, and green when they were preaching the gospel of Garveyism.

Roman Mars:
In 1920, the UNIA held its convention in New York City. It was a sprawling month-long affair attended by tens of thousands of people.

Christopher Johnson:
And there, the UNIA officially declared red, black, and green, the colors of the Negro race.

Roman Mars:
Then those colors were put on spectacular display. When the UNIA held a massive parade meant to conjure a state procession, the flag was part of this medley of symbols that Garvey used to project to the world Black unity, strength and greatness.

Colin Grant:
Primarily, Marcus Garvey was a showman. And in 1920, Marcus Garvey put on the greatest show on earth. And he had the uniform of authority. His Victoria military regalia with his bicorned helmet and his plumes in his helmet. There were huge choirs of a hundred or more on the streets, walking with him. There were uniform guards with their sabers rattling. There were placards saying “our time has come,” “down with lynching.” There were bands playing. There was a spirit of carnival. It was this thing you wanted to be a part of. And it was a street performance that led to the most magnificent statement of Black intent that had ever been.

Christopher Johnson:
But Marcus Garvey also drew a lot of fire. Federal investigators had been after Garvey since he first came to the US. And at the same time W.E.B. Du Bois and other Black leaders were also coming for Garvey. They said his talk of an African empire was foolish. They called his business dealing shady and said that they were especially dangerous to the working class Black people who invested in them. Others saw the UNIA’s pomp and military regalia as clownish and embarrassing to the race.

Roman Mars:
A campaign called Garvey must go pressured law enforcement to redouble their investigation of the UNIA. Garvey was eventually locked up for almost three years for mail fraud. In 1927, he was deported to Jamaica. UNIA shrank severely after that, especially in the United States. In 1940, Marcus Garvey died in London. He was 52 years old.

Christopher Johnson:
“Show me the race or the nation without a flag,” Marcus Garvey once said in a speech, “and I will show you a race of people without any pride.” In the same address, Marcus Garvey invoked that minstrel tune from 1900. “In song and mimicry they have said every race has a flag, but the coon.” But as far as Garvey was concerned, he’d silenced any notion of a flagless race with the red, black, and green banner that was flying all over the Black world.

MARCUS GARVEY:
[WHEN I AM DEAD, WRAP THE MANTLE OF THE RED, THE BLACK AND THE GREEN AROUND ME, FOR IN THE NEW LIFE I SHALL RISE UP WITH GOD’S GRACE AND BLESSINGS TO LEAD THE MILLIONS TO THE HEIGHTS IN THE TRIUMPH THAT YOU WELL KNOW!]

Roman Mars:
It’s been more than 80 years since Marcus Garvey passed, but the UNIA still exists. And members like Mwariama Kamau still salute its century-old banner.

Mwariama Kamau:
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I always keep the flag up in the house. Sometimes when I’m going to meetings I take the big flag on the train or hanging out my car when I’m riding down the street just so folks may ask me, “What’s that? What country is this?”

Christopher Johnson:
But the red, black and green has grown way beyond the UNIA. In the decades after Garvey’s death, several African countries incorporated the Pan-African colors into their own national flags as they gained independence.

Roman Mars:
In the US, the red, black and green colors were prominent during the Black Power movement and the Black Consciousness Renaissance in the 1960s and ’70s. Starting in the late ’80s that tri-colors were a big part of hip-hop fashion.

Christopher Johnson:
In a way, the Pan-African flag has done exactly what Garvey had hoped. He made this enduring symbol that transcends any one organization or country or even hemisphere. He created a single flag that’s recognized all over the world as the symbol of Blackness.

Mwariama Kamau:
Some of those like I said, in the community who fly the flag, they know it makes them feel good. They may not understand its history, its full power, but they know it represents them as a people.

Christopher Johnson:
Okay, so I want to say one last thing about the Pan-African flag. I’m a Black man. I was born in the US. As far back as I know, my family is from this country. They helped build it. My mom worked for the DC government, my dad is a war vet and so are a bunch of my uncles. My great grandfather is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. But even with all this family history, for me there’s also the experience of being Black in America, which can make safety and belonging feel tenuous, standing under the stars and stripes is at best an uneasy and insecure thing, because the flag stands for lots of things, including imperialism and white supremacy. So for me, it’s not a place where I feel at home.

Christopher Johnson:
Whenever I find myself in neighborhoods where US flags are displayed, unless it’s a super Black part of town, I get pretty uncomfortable. I don’t feel safe. It’s very different with the red, black, and green. If I see someone flying that flag outside of their home or in their business, I may have no idea what that person believes. We may not even like each other, but that flag, the decision to fly that flag. It feels like someone’s telling me you’re in a place that’s safe for Black people. And, you know, I think that was a big part of what Garvey wanted to say with the red, black, and green — Black folks, in a world that is constantly threatening you come together under this flag and feel safe.

Roman Mars:
We talk about another interesting flag from our history, the Juneteenth flag, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
Flag Day may be over, but there’s another big day coming up later this week that involves its own flag, Juneteenth, which is a portmanteau of June and 19th. Juneteenth has other names too, including Freedom Day or Liberation Day, but by whatever title, the day is really important. It commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States, specifically the date when the end of slavery was enforced by the Union Army in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865. The date has been celebrated in many places for over a century. And it seems to be on its way to becoming a national holiday.

Roman Mars:
And as part of this push for recognition, the founder of the National Juneteenth celebration foundation, Ben Haith designed a Juneteenth flag in 1997. It was then revised in 2000 by Lisa Jeanne Graf before it was officially flown. Now at this time of year, people ask me about the Juneteenth flag all the time, more and more every year, because it’s a great flag. It’s really lovely. Like the American flag, the Juneteenth flag is red, white, and blue, which is a more striking choice to me since all this stuff I learned from Christopher’s reporting in this episode about the Pan-African red, black and green flag.

Roman Mars:
The Juneteenth flag features a central white star referencing the lone star state where the last of the country’s enslaved population finally learned of their freedom in 1865. Around that is another 12 pointed white star outline. And together they symbolize a star of Texas bursting with new freedom throughout the land over a new horizon. That horizon consists of a red arch meeting the blue sky above. To quote the creators of the flag, the red, white, and blue colors communicate that the American slaves and their descendants were all Americans.

Roman Mars:
Sometimes the flag is shown with the Juneteenth date – June 19, 1865 – written across the fly end, frankly this is not my favorite edition but the basic flag is top drawer. It’s a good flag, as is the red, black and green. So if you fly them together, get ready to talk about all the interesting history that we discussed in this show with the people who pass by.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Christopher Johnson. Edited by Emmett FitzGerald. Music by our director of sound Sean Real. Mixed by Ameeta Ganatra. Delaney Hall is the executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Chris Berube, Katie Mingle, Lasha Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north — in the Pandora building in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find other shows I love from Stitcher as well as every past episode of this program at 99pi.org.

 

 

 

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