Mark M. wants me to talk about how great the Maryland flag is. Thank you, Mark M. I love the Maryland flag. Here’s a tweet from February as evidence.
I'm a huge fan of the Maryland flag. I had a 1 in 50 chance of being born in the state with the best flag and I got lucky.
— Good Tweet Pete 🌮 (@peterhassett) February 6, 2015
I’m inclined to say the Maryland flag is the best because it just looks cool, but I can’t. This story can be only half fun, because the flag, like the people and place it represents, is complicated.
But I’ll say this up front: Maryland is a lot more than crab cakes and football, neither of which are very good.
There’s an understandable aversion to the Maryland flag– an aversion held primarily by the 313 million Americans unfortunate enough to reside not in the great state of Maryland, the free state, the old line state, the state that brought you Spiro Agnew and Good Charlotte. That aversion comes from the, uh, slight amount of tribalism and marketing that comes splattered with the Maryland colors.
— Clockwork Synergy (@cwsynergy) August 23, 2015
Under Armour and the Maryland state flag have quite the presence at the UMD auxiliary gym pic.twitter.com/xCTqNhnoie
— Kelyn Soong (@KelynSoong) August 22, 2015
I’m exhausted. But there’s a reason why the Maryland flag is used to for sell stuff. It’s because it’s awesome.
If Freddie Mercury were alive today and someone said to him, “Freddie, first of all congrats on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and for saving Cory Monteith’s life and for going infinity platinum on your duet album with Beyonce, but that doesn’t matter right now because you need to be onstage at Merriweather Post Pavillion in like thirty seconds and we can’t find your cape! What should we do?”
Freddie looks around the room. He spots the Maryland flag. His eyes light up.
“Problem solved,” Freddie says through perfect teeth. The light of Ahura Mazda upon him, Mercury wraps the flag around his neck and boom, showtime. He probably opens the set with “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
The state flag of Maryland has a terrific and terrible history. The Maryland Secretary of State’s website tells it well, but I’ll cover the basic points here– along with my own impassioned perspective, which you might hate.
It starts with George Calvert, the first Lord of Baltimore in 1618. The flag is– or eventually would be– taken from his coat of arms. The yellow-and-black quadrants come from Calvert’s father’s side and the red-and-white are from his mum’s family, the Crosslands. This will become important in a minute.
The coat of arms wouldn’t become the flag for a long time (until then, they used the state seal on a field of blue), but the yellow-and-black of the Calvert family were unofficially associated with Maryland for a real long time. For more than a century, the yellow-and-black were called The Maryland Colors.
The red-and-white, however, were not the Maryland colors, and now we need a short digression through the Civil War.
Like the rest of the states we used to call the Old South, Maryland had a tremendously complicated history with slavery and racism. Maryland stuck with the Union but held strong confederate sympathies– that is, until the confederates invaded and found unexpected resistance once they passed north of the Shenandoah River Valley. But it was here in Maryland where Booth’s conspiracy found popular support, and it was here in Maryland where Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and it was here in Maryland where the Dred Scott decision found its author. Even the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 did not apply to Maryland; the state had to pass its own emancipation a year later in a hurry not to be usurped and embarrassed by the Thirteenth Amendment, which followed imminently in ’65.
I told you that so I can tell you this: Maryland’s rebels and traitors flew the red-and-white of the Crossland family to signal their support for the confederacy and the cancerous evil at its heart: slavery. The red-and-white were a vicious and seditious way to say some people were not people after all.
But slavery ended, and then the war, and then the President’s life. Most of the slaves actually freed themselves. Maryland’s rebel soldiers returned home to find their state transformed. Everything had changed in five years, and the state badly needed reconciliation.
(Here’s the part where I’d like to discuss Andrew Johnson and the failures of Reconstruction, but I guess we’ll just stick to the flag.)
No one knows who drafted it or when it first flew, but by 1880 the Maryland flag as we know it was flying from the state house in Annapolis. It was the Calvert coat of arms restored, half yellow-and-black and half red-and-white, the reunion of a state divided.
The Maryland flag is reconciliation in whole cloth, literally. The flag, like the people it represents, is forever in conflict with itself, solemnly cognizant of the seemingly intractable divisions at its core, but resolute in the notion that if we must proceed, we must do it together.
I sometimes find it more useful to think of the concept of identity less as a constellation of character traits and more as a bunch of internal conflicts. For example, I feel I know a person better if I imagine his struggle to feel less ashamed and less unloved rather than simply being the class clown. By that same principle, I find the idea of a singular American identity (e.g. ruggedly individualistic, devout, loyal) as simplistic and reductive. As a people, we’re a composite, and we’re not a tidy one. The Maryland flag is like that too.
Sure, it is bold colors that look good on sports merchandise and phone cases and that plastic sheet you throw on the picnic table before you eat crabs, but it’s more than that. It looks cool, but it doesn’t just look cool. The flag admits the sins of the past, and then it asks us what’s next. It tells the story of pain and death and pity and disgrace, and it says while this is our legacy, it doesn’t have to be our identity.
The last 130 years of our politics have been animated by the same struggle that gave us this flag: what does it mean to be a person, and who counts as one?
It’s all complicated– the question, the flag, the state, and its people–but I find beauty in that complexity. I find beauty in the struggle to be the best we can be and in the belief that the only way we’ll get through this is together.
Thanks for the question and the donation, Mark.
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