African American Flag Still Flying High

By Shantay Robinson


Flying high outside the Studio Museum in Harlem is David Hammons’ African American Flag. The flag was created in 1990 for the “Black USA” show at Museum Overholland in Amsterdam. There were just five flags created. When the flag was offered at auction, it was expected to be sold for between $700,000 and $1 million. It was eventually sold for more than $2 million. The flag is inspired by the American flag but incorporates the colors of the Pan-African Flag also known as the Black Liberation Flag.  While the flag is an artistic production, it enforces the idea that the United States is still a very divided country. Although it was created in 1990, almost 30 years later, it relates a more profound story than when its idea was first conceived.

At the time when red, black, and green were designated as the colors of black liberation, racism was more rampant than it is now. It was the norm, as opposed to now, when it’s recognized as wrong to most. African Americans had limited rights in this country under a flag that ostensibly represented democracy for all. Although laws today are meant to protect both white and nonwhite people, the imparting of the laws are not equally enforced. This inequality is something that Africans throughout the Diaspora can connect with. Africans around the world are still treated like second class citizens. So, the Pan African flag was designed to represent Africans of the Diaspora and to express a common history, as well as a common destiny.

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The Universal Negro Improvement Association adopted the red, black and green flag in 1920 in response to the song “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon.” In 1927, Marcus Garvey is quoted as saying, “Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride. Aye! In song and mimicry, they have said, ‘Every race has a flag but the coon.’  How true! Aye! But that was said of us four years ago. They can’t say it now…” The colors of the flag are representative, as the red is for the blood, the black is for the people and the green is for the natural wealth of the Motherland, Africa.

The colors of the flag are representative, as the red is for the blood, the black is for the people and the green is for the natural wealth of the Motherland, Africa.

David HammonsDesignating a flag for African Americans instills a certain level of pride in the people but in recent years’ demonstrations, the flag hasn’t been prominently seen in the images exported to the media. In the face of a hostile United States, does the black liberation flag still hold the weight that it did when it was created? In a day when black people in the country are still fighting for their rights as Americans, an African American flag, although seemingly divisive, does represents the isolated state of the people it symbolizes.  Identifying African Americans from the rest of the country by using the black liberation flag could misrepresent the intentions of a people who are tired of being a subset of the country when in reality they want full rights.

David Hammons’ African American Flag symbolizes the state of black people in this very divided country right now. The flag couldn’t be more relevant to this time in America where African Americans are facing hostility from the nation’s highest office. While the black liberation colors identify black people by its colors, the stars and stripes of the African American Flag allow us to see that although African Americans aren’t perceived as equals in this country, they are an integral part of American culture. African Americans are a vital part of the fabric of American history and contemporary life, so will there ever be a time when the American flag intentionally represents that?

Shantay Robinson participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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