Why the American Flag Is the Least of My Worries

04/27/2015 11:56 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015

Over the last few days, all eyes have increasingly turned to Valdosta, GA where a group of students on the campus of Valdosta State University have sparked outrage in that community, following a protest on campus against police brutality and racism. In a photo that has made its rounds around social media, one of the student organizers of the protest, Eric Sheppard, can be seen walking over the American flag. Valdosta State University Police detained Navy veteran Michelle Manhart for attempting to wrestle the flag from protesters. She was later released.

In a video, Sheppard explains:

The meaning for the stepping on the flag was that that flag represents white supremacy and racism, which is plaguing the entire earth. So when we step on that flag, we are stepping on racism and white supremacy. We are stepping on those things that we must reckon with that cause our genocide and holocaust. We are releasing those chains from our mental capacity and our physical capacity.

Police later found a backpack on campus with a gun they say 'unmistakably' belongs to Sheppard. He is now wanted and considered 'armed and dangerous' by Valdosta Police. The FBI has also opened an investigation into the possibility that he made 'terroristic threats' on social media.

If the extent of the outrage over the protest -- and Sheppard -- has not been established undeniably, consider that thousands ascended on the campus Friday for a patriotic rally. Valdosta Police Chief Brian Childress said the rally was for all those who "just want to come down here and support the American flag."

I write this reflection ever mindful of the distance that exists between myself and the [mostly white and heterosexual Americans] who remain captivated by the allure of the American Dream -I am a low-income African-American queer college student whose life has often meant the ardent defense of my own difference. I am also mindful of the distance between my understanding of patriotism and the conception that many continue to cling to. You see, I simply do not have the luxury of celebrating freedom and liberty, lauding the arrival of the post-racial state, and exalting the nation for its full equality -- primarily because none of that is entirely true.

So what, for African-Americans, does it mean to support the American flag? What kind of patriotism must we wield? The spectacle of black death seems to heighten after each shooting, each manifestation that black lives are valued less than white lives. Where thousands gathered in Valdosta to celebrate the most recognizable symbol of American freedom, thousands more mourn the deaths of black and brown citizens by apparent lawmen. Thousands more mourn the loss of our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters to prison cells. Thousands more mourn the chance of a quality education which they will likely not see.

Buying into any vision of patriotism that fails in acknowledging the facts of the matter ignores the ongoing disrespect and death that hovers over millions of black and brown people. And if stepping on an American flag is the height of disrespect for many white Americans, it is at best the least of our worries, if a worry at all. Thousands flocked to Valdosta in counter-protest to defend a flag. Many black Americans must defend their bodies -- against disparities, disease, and death. This is the irony of American patriotism.

The flag belongs to me as much as it belongs to my white countrymen. My embrace, however, is neither dishonest about the present nor oblivious to the ways in which the flag embodies our most radical possibilities: that all men and women are created equal. But to celebrate a flag with death around is a terrible thing to demand of those whose pleasures and joys in life are in fighting to survive life itself.

I do not mean to be a counselor of despair but the reality is that America is a tale of two nations for many African Americans -- one where opportunity abounds on the one hand and elusive for millions on the other. However radical the idea might seem, patriotism -- as I understand it -- means a reckoning with the facts of our past and present; a commitment to honesty about all the ways the American dream is out of view for far too many. Patriotism means coming to terms with the terrible fact that many African-Americans are more concerned with the defense of their bodies than the defense of civic symbols that yield us few rewards. Most importantly, patriotism ought to resist uncritical appraisals of American liberty and freedom. The great writer and American thinker James Baldwin put it this way in 1955:

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.

If the American flag should be a metaphor and a symbol of anything, it should be of radical possibility -- where the black and brown citizens at the margins are central to America's care and concern, where calls for patriotic response is not the mask of those who refuse to admit the nation's terrible truths.