Photo by Ted Soqui
Words have felt useless to me for the last couple of weeks, which is not a good place for a writer to be. Besides the fact that since September 11 a semi-permanent horror has drained me of a certain self-absorption required of the craft, there truly is little to write — everything has been said more than once, every image analyzed down to the dots of its resolution, every public speculation and declaration explicated ad nauseam. At the same time, my speechlessness feels appropriate, because what’s been talking the loudest has not been words, but symbols, chiefly the American flag. Never have the stars and stripes been so garrulous, called upon to say so many things at once: that we love our country, that we’re sorry so many of us died so violently and senselessly, that we stand united, that we’re going to give those goddamn terrorists the slow death they deserve. I acknowledge all these sentiments, and empathize with a few, but I refuse to wave the flag. I never have. I haven’t said the Pledge of Allegiance in years. This doesn’t mean that I’m not a patriot; I believe in the luminous possibility this country still rolls between its hands like dice, and I’m perfectly aware that because of that possibility I can bitch about it not being realized to my satisfaction. I don’t invoke the flag because I’m still holding out for the ideals behind it; after more than 200 years, flag waving still feels premature. But I grew up with plenty of public exegeses of America — in my South L.A. neighborhood, in the post–Black Panther years, families always celebrated the Fourth of July with lots of fireworks, though relatively few flags. Making noise and shooting off sparks felt aggrieved and affirming and a lot more patriotic than standing, silent, with a hand over your heart.
I do know the need to wave — if not a flag, then a Dodger pennant or a dirty sock or something — because what you have to say is bigger than you, bigger than your biggest words. You need to surrender, rage at the gods, sway in rock-concert solidarity; the attack on America has occasioned the need for all that. Still, I was more than surprised when my husband came home last week and announced, with no evident irony, that he had bought an American flag and put it on his car. He sounded relieved, like this was something he’d always wanted to do but could never justify until now. My husband is a natural progressive, a history teacher who reads incessantly, asks the hard questions first, has no patience with platitudes or blanket statements or easy emotions. But here he was telling me that it felt good to drive around with a flag suctioned to his window. “Don’t you feel a little bit patriotic?” he asked, somewhat hopefully.
I said that I felt no more and no less patriotic than I had before the attacks; he nodded at my response but was disappointed, I could tell. It was odd to feel a sudden divide where there had never been one, where I thought there never could be one. His being Jewish and my being black is challenge enough, though our political sentiments are pretty closely aligned, and that as much as anything had brought and kept us together, despite our having passionate differences at points. Now I felt that he was in thrall to a bit of religion I don’t have, and it made me not angry or annoyed but puzzled, a little envious and at a loss. As he walked away, I felt he was walking where I couldn’t follow. I had a romantic pang of wanting to, even pretending to — maybe if I approached it like behavioral therapy, if I waved the flag enough, gestured more and thought less, even for a moment, it might . . . It was no use. This brief fantasy was as far as I got. I went back to CNN, which had been on in the living room practically uninterrupted for days, to parse more symbols in the television coverage.
I did agree to light a candle later that night, at 7 o’clock, at the request of my husband and George W. Bush. A candle actually felt bigger to me than a flag, more emotionally encompassing and less fraught with the perilous history of American patriotism (an impulse Samuel Johnson once denounced as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”). A candle was a tiny torch that could burn for anything you wanted it to, a more solemn and sophisticated version of the sock or the Dodger pennant. We gathered on the corner of Olympic near La Brea and stood in a knot — me, my husband and four neighbors, including two we’d never met — raising our little flames and awkwardly trying to shield them from the whoosh of traffic that extinguished them every minute or so. Hot wax dripped leisurely down my fingers, horns honked in a clamor, and I swelled not with patriotism but with the high-voltage charge of getting people in L.A. — many of whom were headed downtown to the Madonna concert — to look up from their steering wheels and wave, or stare, or appear startled, or nod soberly, or raise their fingers in a V. We were of a million different minds, and we were all in this confusion together. For me, for now, that was togetherness enough.
About a half hour into our vigil, my very inspired husband went to retrieve his flag from the car window, ran out into the middle of Olympic and started waving it frantically, determined that everybody should see; he looked less like a patriot than the guy at the finish line of a drag race. Those of us on the corner with our candle stubs laughed in spite of ourselves, in spite of everything, and went on giving each other staggered lights, until the flag grew invisible in the darkness, and there was nothing left to burn.