Flags are indeed potent things, and remain so in our internet age. The rainbow flag of the gay rights movement; the EU’s circle of stars on a field of blue; St George’s Cross with its connotations of resurgent English nationalism; or the new Refugee Nation Flag, designed by Yara Said. Though only made of cloth, we seem to need these symbols in order to think through our turbulent times.They are also remarkably tenacious. A Confederate memorial that stood in Louisville was recently taken down by order of the mayor. Overnight, a supposedly permanent monument disappeared. A flag cannot be so easily got rid of. Anyone can make one, and anyway, we carry it round in our heads all the time. Yet, as Clark points out, there is nothing inevitable about the battle flag’s power. It is just one fragment taken from a complex history.
There is another flag to which she has directed attention by remaking, rather than unmaking, it: the Confederate Flag of Truce, a field of white interrupted only by a few red stripes. The original (a small piece of cloth, probably made from a dish towel) was present at Appomattox Court House in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. At some point after the peace treaty was signed, the flag was cut into pieces, which are today kept as relics in various museums.That hardly anyone remembers the Flag of Truce, while the battle flag remains so present in our thoughts, is itself an indication of a troubled history.
‘The flag that brought our nation together was dismantled and forgotten,’ Clark says, ‘while the flag that drove us apart is in all our imaginations.’ Could Americans collectively choose to embrace another, better history, one where we meet and decide not to fight? The Flag of Truce looks not unlike a white handkerchief, with which one might signal surrender. That is a difficult thing to embrace. But it represents a choice Americans still have, and aren’t currently taking. Will we continue to take up arms against one another – both rhetorically and in reality – or will we have the courage to lay them down?