Flags and songs that bring us together or tear us apart

The flag of post-apartheid South Africa integrates the colors of the African National Congress, Dutch Tricolor, Union, and Transvaal vierkleur. Can we raise a unifying flag over the American South?

Have you ever heard the national anthem of South Africa? It’s an amazing piece that integrates five languages (Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English) and the anthems of the black liberation movement (“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”) and the former white-dominated regime (“Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”). I believe it’s the only national anthem that begins and ends in different keys. Listening to it still sends shivers down my spine.

It is specially moving when it is sung in international rugby matches by the Springboks. See the opening of the 2010 South Africa-New Zealand game to see white men sing passionately in the languages of the black people of their country. (Bonus: you can see a bunch of white men of the New Zealand All Blacks also perform a Maori haka at the end.) You should also learn about the flag of South Africa to see how it integrates the colors of the African National Congress, Dutch Tricolor, Union, and Transvaal vierkleur.

I’m bringing this up because of the irony. Dylann Roof, the accused perpetrator of a massacre of nine African Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, appeared in pictures wearing a jacket with the flags of the apartheid regimes in southern Africa (really?) along with the predictable “Confederate” flag.

The irony is this: the creators of the Rhodesian, apartheid-era South Africa, and “Confederate” flags were explicit about the need to defend a country where European descendants had complete dominance over the lives of people of African descend and even subscribed to an ideology of racial hegemony over the planet. Here they come together in the atrocious imagination of a terrorist.

The answer to Roof’s hatred also comes from South Africa. As I reflect on that amazing transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa, I am amazed by the tremendous amount of soul searching that must have been done in order to construct a true national identity crystallized around such fundamental symbols as a flag and an anthem. There it is: a “call to come together” and a “united we shall stand.” Credit must go to Nelson Mandela, who led the way by simply learning the Afrikaans of his jailers so that he could address his nation as president in that language. I find myself yearning for American symbols, songs, flags that also “call us to come together” so that “united we shall stand” to live and strive for freedom in a post-racist society. We have the Stars and Stripes, a wonderful symbol to which I recite a pledge of allegiance and sing of the home of the brave. But the fight to make these symbols of national inclusiveness is still ongoing. Anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, English-only groups still claim ownership of the American Flag at a level that anti-racist, pro-human rights groups do not. But they should.

We desperately need symbols in the American South in the form of songs and flags that tell the story of how we can and have come together as a people. What should we call ourselves? What are our mottoes? The image and words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are moving and represent what I yearn for. Is there an easy way to put them in a state flag? Can we make an anthem of his words?

Carl Sagan in his original series Cosmos wondered what more advanced civilizations in other planets would call themselves. He presented an imaginary Encyclopedia Galactica that would list them by their names. One of these civilizations called itself “We Who Survived.” Doesn’t that speak volumes about the struggle of a people?

Homework to the State of Mississippi who needs to come to terms with the explicit racism in its state flag: with four colors invent a design that says, “We Who Survived and Came Together as a People.”

Enrique Gómez is President of the Jackson County NC NAACP and an Associate Professor of Physics at Western Carolina University, specializing in the astrophysics of supernovae and stellar outflows.