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Full Circle: The American Olympic Flag Issue
Last uploaded : Thursday 12th Aug 2004 at 20:55
Contributed by : Cay Philips


I am in the process of writing a stage play about racial segregation in the United States Armed Forces during World War II. The material itself is difficult because the black revolution was in full swing by the time I was reaching adulthood. One of the actors in the play, an Afro-Caribbean British man, is not at all offended by the use of the ?N? word in my script. I had actually omitted the word and used ?Negro? instead, but he said, touchingly, ?You have to have integrity as a writer and the truth is that in 1944 white people called us by that name.? (He actually said ?N?? but I can?t even bring myself to write it here.)

Anyway, I was reading today that the United States Olympic Committee has asked its athletes to ?tone down the patriotism.? Apparently after Maurice Greene and his all-black co-athletes had donned huge American flags in Sydney in 2000 and celebrated Gold with a passionate display of pride in their country they were roundly chastised for 'excessive patriotic zeal.'

I could not help but feel incensed by the 2004 Olympic edict of ?you may not be patriotic? on two counts: one of my most vivid memories of the 1960s was the fury of African American girls at my high school standing on tables and shouting ?Black Power!? ? Black Power? whilst in department stores, white girls with long hair were terrified of ?steaming gangs? of black girls with razors going up and down escalators and cutting our hair off.

The 1960s and 70s were the years of near-bloody insurrection in the United States, in case anyone has forgotten. The Vietnam War and the anger of African Americans living in poverty and despair created a double-edged flashpoint. If one was not being threatened with a beating from a crowd of hard-hats for the War, one was confined to home after nine o?clock when curfews were imposed in the simmering American cities of James Baldwin?s ?The Fire Next Time.?

?Burn , baby, burn!? was the cry as American cities were set aflame after the Chicago convention of 1968 had made one feel that the dreams of the Founding Fathers had been dashed forever.

It culminated with the Black Power salute by American athletes who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance at various international competitions including the Olympics.

Two weeks ago I watched the Democratic National Convention from Boston. The two most memorable speeded were delivered by Revd Al Sharpton and Barack Obama, two African American leaders. They invoked adoration from the convention floor and delivered eloquent speeches that conveyed the varied life experience of the two men. Sharpton was filled with anger and bitterness -- notwithstanding his lovable ?I was promised forty acres and a mule and I never got my mule ..? whilst Obama was filled with hope that moved many in the Bostonian Fleet Centre to tears.

So, here we are in 2004 and the image of the proud African American athletes led by Maurice Greene in 2000 -- a sight I never thought I would witness in my lifetime -- also brings tears to my eyes. In a room in my home I have a framed image of a black GI wrapped in a giant American flag and weeping alongside Ground Zero as the site still smouldered. For those if us who lived through the turbulent -- no, terrifying -- 1960s and 70s, an image like this epitomises the endurance of the American system and of our Constitution. It did not break apart when John Kennedy was assassinated or when Watts burned. It did not collapse when Chicago exploded or when Dr King; Bobby Kennedy and George Wallace were shot in rapid succession.

The image of Maurice Greene and his all-African American team dancing in joy with the Stars and Stripes was for me a defining moment in the young nation?s history. Recently a British friend said he was shocked at the proliferation of patriotism after September 11th. American pride in our unique history is impossible to explain to non-Americans. Even before 9/11 every child savours our national holiday. My British friend said ?But that is a form of Soviet-style brainwashing!? How can one explain genuine rapture at a trip to the Liberty Bell on July 4th followed by hot dogs and fireworks?

Despite slavery; the Civil War; the hideous McCarthy era and segregation we have come shining through and with each permutation of near-disaster the nation seems to have become a better place. At present, I am fully aware of the worries of Americans living inside the USA: they feel the Patriot Act is taking America to a place it has never been. I want people who worry about the Patriot Act to live a few weeks in Europe where hatred of the USA and of Jews abounds in every aspect of life. Furthermore, as I have repeated many times on this site, I was threatened with death when I wanted to film at the local mosque many years ago, long before Bush --- when Labour ran Israel and Bill Clinton was seeking peace in the Middle East.

In November 2003 I watched British middle class citizens burning the Stars and Stripes in Trafalgar Square. My fervent hope is that the American athletes will show their national pride in any way they wish. Hiding the American flag? That is just what the terrorists want. They want us to hide it in fear, whilst they burn it in Karachi and Damascus and Tehran.

My message to the Olympic team is to show the unity America enjoyed after the 9/11 atrocity and wave the Stars and Stripes forever.


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