The recent controversy in the NFL over players protesting the national anthem surged back into the news this week when NFL owners voted to penalize teams whose players do not “stand and show respect” to the flag during the national anthem.
This is the part of the blog where I PUT UP A GIANT DISCLAIMER ABOUT HOW I AM NOT COMMENTING ON WHO IS RIGHT OR WRONG ON THE MATTER, BUT RATHER HOW, AS AN ENGLISH TEACHER, I SEE THE DEBATE AS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO DISCUSS SYMBOLS AND HOW THEY IMPACT OUR VIEWPOINTS.
On a serious note, I know this topic touches upon deep, significant cultural issues involving equality, national pride, and so much more. That’s why I believe it is an incredible opportunity for educators to discuss symbolism and WHY symbols and their debated meaning matter. Without further ado, let’s talk about the two most significant symbols right now: the flag and Confederate monuments. To do so, I’ll break down HOW symbols are formed and why the context and interpretation of these symbols influence their effect.
Symbols are defined by their context
In literature, we begin to notice symbols as they appear in our text. Many high schoolers have been asked to consider how a mockingbird symbolizes multiple characters in Harper Lee’s seminal novel To Kill a Mockingbird, or why F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to have Jay Gatsby reach toward the green light across the bay. We, as readers, take what we know about the narrative surrounding the symbol and do our best to assign meaning.
If context is crucial to understand symbols, I’ll ask you to do a quick exercise: what is the first “text” you think of when I mention the U.S. Flag? Keep in mind that a “text” can be anything - book, poem, song, movie, etc. Don’t limit yourself to a novel or nonfiction book.
I’m guessing the majority of participants in this exercise would land at one spot first and foremost: The Star-Spangled Banner. Great! This is a poem/song we can easily deconstruct to develop a context. The kicker? Nearly everyone in the United States is familiar with this text!
With any text, it helps to know the historical and authorial context first. Francis Scott Key wrote “Defence of Fort M’Henry”, a poem about the British bombing a US fort during the War of 1812. Scott drew inspiration from seeing a US flag flying triumphantly over the fort in victory, somehow surviving the canon blasts from the British fleet.
But what about the lyrics? I’m going to post the “meat” of the song - the middle eight of the 14 total lines that give us the setting of the scene:
Whose broad stripes and bright stars
Through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched,
Were so gallantly, yeah, streaming?
And the rockets' red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there
For nearly every major sporting event, Americans hear these lines and certain images come to mind. They hear words like fight, ramparts, rockets, bombs, and the visual of the flag surviving it all, and the symbolism of the flag begins to take shape. I recall in elementary school being told about Francis Scott Key writing the poem in the midst of a battle. I recall trying to recite “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a child, only having confidence in the line about the bomb because, well, I was nine and I could associate it with plenty of pop culture exposure. All of these recollections shape my interpretation of what the flag means.
Okay, second exercise. What is the first mental image that comes to mind when you think of the US flag? I’m betting that another nine out of ten participants would picture this guy right here:
And why not? This photo, captured during the Battle of Iwo Jima, won photographer Joe Rosenthal the Pulitzer Prize and turned the flag-bearers into modern-day celebrities. If we take this image, coupled with the context of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, a common theme begins to emerge.
When I first heard about the NFL national anthem controversy, I could not, for the life of me, understand why a contingent of Americans assumed the flag symbolized the troops. However, when I started considering the main context through which people experience the flag, I was able to understand the perspective of others who I had previously not appreciated. When the seminal text and image associated with a symbol such as the flag is littered with military language and visuals, it is a bit easier to understand why Americans equate the flag to military service. As mentioned in the disclaimer, I am not saying this interpretation is necessarily the correct one, but it is easy to make the case that the US flag symbolizes military victory based on context.
Symbols are defined by a reader’s argumentation and how compelling it is to others - not necessarily the author
One of the most fascinating aspects of symbols are that often times the author had NO intention of creating the symbol when creating their piece - instead, a convincing reader or group of readers birthed the symbol out of their own interpretation. When I taught symbols in a high school English classroom, I always emphasized that symbols are nothing more than persuasive arguments made by the reader based on their interpretation of the text. A symbol cannot be absolute - it is a hypothesis backed by evidence from the medium in which it is found.
I could think of no better example of symbolism as a persuasive argument in contemporary America than Civil War monuments featuring Confederate leaders. Although the controversy stems on whether a person’s biggest travesties outweigh their accomplishments, the true issue lies in how many people believe in a symbol’s representation and how that representation changes over time.
Take, for instance, the debate over removing statues of General Robert E. Lee from places like New Orleans or other major cities. On one side, Lee’s statue serves as a grim celebration of a Confederacy that fought in favor of the tenets of slavery (among other reasons). On the other side, Lee represents the lost lives of southerners and those who felt like the Union stood for government overreach.
Again, the argument circles back to symbolism. What has changed in recent years where suddenly people have decided to remove these monuments? The answer is simple: viewers of these symbols have made persuasive arguments that swayed enough of a majority to change their represented meaning. Instead of a majority opinion seeing Lee as a martyr, they see him as a symbol of slavery. Between the Civil War and until recently, the majority viewpoint saw Lee as the embodiment of those who gave their lives, regardless of the cause they fought and died for. Does this make either side right? Not necessarily. Instead, it simply means persuasion moved the needle enough.
But what about monuments for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, two founding fathers who both owned slaves? The majority interpretation of the symbol of these two men has not shifted away from heroes of the revolution and formation of the United States to their ties with slavery. Could this change with time? Absolutely. Has the opinion of their symbolism shifted enough? Not at this moment.
Symbols are everywhere - and they matter
Hopefully, this is your big takeaway from this blog post - symbols are NOT just for discussing in an English classroom. Symbols are all around us - in pop culture, our society, our music, our movies, and much more. How we interpret these symbols and, more importantly, how we appreciate others’ interpretation of symbols is crucial to healthy discourse. Right now, people are struggling to appreciate each others’ interpretation of symbols such as the flag and Confederate monuments. It’s up to us to instill this value in our community, our students, and ourselves.