As we either witnessed or fully participated in last weekend’s Juneteenth holiday celebrations, one may have noticed the ever-present image of the Black Liberation flag flowing virtually everywhere, in large and small forms. Known as the Red, Black and Green flag, it has a very interesting history.
During the WWI era, especially between 1915 and the early 1920’s, the most popular non-holiday songs for the masses were mainly “coon” songs. For successful songwriters and vaudeville stage performers, having at least one well-known coon song was virtually a requirement.
One such song, by Heelan and Helf, was entitled, “Every Race Has A Flag But The Coon.”
A sample of the lyrics for the chorus illustrates the tenor of the day:
“For Ireland has her Harp and Shamrock
England floats her Lion bold
Even China waves a Dragon
Germany an Eagle gold
Bonny Scotland loves a Thistle
Turkey has her Crescent Moon
And what won’t Yankees do for their Red,
White and Blue
Every race has a flag but the coon.”
“He says, ‘Now I’ll suggest a flag that ought to win a prize Just take a flannel shirt and paint it red
Then draw a chicken on it with two poker dice for eyes
An’ have it wavin’ razors ‘round its head
To make it quaint, you’ve got to paint
A possum with a pork chop in his teeth.’
To give it tone, a big hambone
You sketch upon a banjo underneath
And be sure not to skip just a policy slip
Have it marked four eleven forty four
Then them Irish and Dutch,
they can’t guy us so much
We should have had this emblem long before.”
In those days, cultural nationalism was strong in the country, especially in New York and the East Coast. African-Americans were seemingly left out of the competition, so partially in response to that social-political reality, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) created the Red, Black and Green flag to symbolize the struggle for African sovereignty and unity.
Though Garveyism has ebbed and flowed in African-American liberation circles since the 1920s (and is having a very strong revival currently), the UNIA flag has only grown in influence and significance. Now called the Black Liberation flag and visible at virtually every Black-themed event, whether a church-based “Souls to the Polls” get-together, a Black Lives Matter protest march, a Juneteenth celebration, or a regular drum circle event on the weekend in Leimert Park.
In spite of all this, the vast majority of Black folk cannot tell you that that flag was invented by, and is still primarily used for advocates of Garveyism. The flag has become a universal symbol of Black activism and struggle.
Along the way, there have been several major attempts to alter the flag, the two most prominent being the early flag of the New Republic of Africa organization (NRA) in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and a flag associated with the annual Kwanzaa celebration. In both instances, the flag was changed from its standard Red, Black and Green colors to Green, Black and Red. This attempted alteration confused people and after a period of controversy and consternation over it each time, the flag was changed back to the familiar Red, Black and Green combination. That is where it now stands.
We should remember and give honor to the Garveyites who invented the flag, as we daily wave it and honor it in virtually all public Black gatherings—even picnics.
We should also preserve it. Call it what we will—The Jubilee Flag, the Slavery Independence Flag, the Black Freedom Flag, the Pan African Revolutionary flag, the Black History Month flag, the Maintaining Black Traditions flag, etc. As long as we hold it high in dignity and respect, the Garveyites will not mind.
There’ll be no lawsuits for copyright violation or illegal usage as long as this code of decorum is maintained. It’s all good.
Professor David L. Horne is the founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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