In my workshop at Naropa this week, “Utopia Begins with You,” we’ve been discussing
our creative habits as individuals as well as how we connect to others through creative
collaboration. I am by nature a solitary person, and it’s not my habit to work collaboratively.
On the occasions when I’ve done so, it was more a result of serendipity than anything
else. Each time I can recall feeling anxiety about working with another person. Yet
in each case when I’ve followed through and actually completed a project with an artist,
writer, or composer, it has given me unexpected pleasure. I’ve learned by watching
how other people work; and the process has pushed me to think of my own work in new
ways. So I thought for today’s panel, “Language as a Dangerous Toy,” I would talk
about an experience of collaboration and its unexpected consequences.
In 2006 I worked with Sheila Sofian, an animation artist who teaches at University
of Southern California. Sheila and I didn’t know each other before we were invited
to participate in a project that paired writers and animation artists as collaborators.
So we got together and decided that we wanted to make some comment about the way patriotism
was being defined in the post–9/11 period of the second Gulf War. I wrote and performed
the text, which borrows an idea from Lee Ann Brown’s Polyverse; and Sheila created the images using digital animation technology. I was especially
pleased that my nephew, William O. Darity, a student at Oberlin Music Conservatory,
agreed to contribute a music track that Sheila used for the opening and closing frames
of the video.
Our collaboration resulted in a five-minute animation video titled Waving the Flag that was screened in Los Angeles in a program sponsored by the New Town Foundation.
Although I thought the satirical statement we had made was rather mild, and definitely
in the tradition of artistic free speech, I can remember actually shivering in my
seat when I first saw the video in its finished form on a big screen with an audience
at, of all places, the Gene Autry Museum. But it was, after all, an audience of pretty
artsy people, and most of the comments I heard were positive. I did have an encounter
with one of Sheila’s students from USC who asked me, in a half-joking, half-serious
way, “Now really, you don’t hate America, do you?” I replied, “I don’t always love
America, but I do believe in the ideals of freedom and equality that America is supposed
to stand for, including the right to criticize America.”
Sheila and I laughed about it afterwards. Some of her students, she said, were a bit
conservative. Then, a few days later, she sent me an article about a creative writing
teacher at Shippensburg University who was reported as a terrorist suspect when he
was seen hauling a box of old poetry manuscripts to a campus recycling bin. The bomb
squad and the state police arrived because an ROTC student had called in a report
of a Middle-Eastern-looking man with a suspicious-looking package. It gave me pause,
considering that my image appears in the video. That animated figure looks like me,
but literally isn’t me. It’s a character I performed, with Sheila’s enthusiastic direction
urging me to be “louder and angrier” for dramatic effect.
Some interpret the sardonic message as my personal opinion about the U.S. flag and
all it represents. One viewer wanted to know if I had lost a family member in Iraq
or Afghanistan. Fortunately not, although my African-American family has a history
of military service dating back to the Civil War; and one of my Irish-American ancestors
appears on the roster of Revolutionary War soldiers and patriots. As a pacifist, I
am torn between my identification with my country and my personal conviction that
war is not the answer to the problems that plague humanity. My intent in Waving the
Flag was to present a continuum of uneasy responses to the use of the flag as a logo
of consumer-oriented patriotism driven by fear.
Sheila Sofian subsequently entered Waving the Flag in several video, film, and animation festivals in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.
PBS selected it as a winner of its Independent Lens Online Shorts Festival, so it
was shown on the PBS website. Sheila forwarded along to me a message she received
from a friend of hers who used to live in the former Soviet Union. It’s the most detailed
response to this little video collaboration that I’ve seen; and I saved it, because
it relates to my thoughts about this panel’s topic, the pleasures and dangers of language.
Sheila, I got the DVD and watched it right away. While watching it, I felt like I
was in on some transgressive act. I even felt vaguely guilty just by virtue of the
fact that something this subversive was playing on my TV screen. I think this has
to do with the emotional and political power of the flag and the kind of paranoid,
self-censoring media culture we live in. My old memories of communism might have kicked
My 10-year-old son was watching along with me. When it was over, he said, “This was
dumb.” I was shocked because he’s a well-indoctrinated young liberal, so I asked why.
“Because she said the flag was great.” This reaction really bothered me so I gave
it some thought while he was at his piano lesson later in the day and I took a walk.
I realized—or choose to believe—that his misunderstanding of the film has less to
do with his limited visual literacy but precisely with the connotations of the theme,
the American flag. In other words, it’s not because he’s generally unable to read
irony that he missed the discrepancy between the visuals and the words.
Rather the reason may be that the flag is almost always used precisely in the overblown,
almost cartoonishly inflated, tear-jerking, emotion-eliciting manner that the film
so successfully mocks. I think that’s why [my son] thought it was “real.” Because
“real” representations of the flag are almost always propagandistic, even when also
commercial (no neat separation between the commercial and the political, as you make
clear) employing the same images of toughness, masculinity, the presidential office,
guns, etc. that you use in the film. To me, this incessant expectation to worship
the flag is always inches away from the ridiculous, from self-mockery and self-destruction.
But for [my son’s] 10-year-old perception a film about the flag is probably like my
bumper sticker is to a lot of people: at a distance it looks like the flag, but the
stars are dollar signs and the caption under it says: “Imperialism: a way of life
worth bombing for.” And another thing: to me (adults) the African-American female
voice is the most important clue as to the sarcastic intent of the commentary. But
since the usual commercial-political overuse of the flag heavily depends on token
images and voices of multiculturalism, even this may sound familiar to [my son] from
“real” flag worship.
Anyway, what I want to draw out of this quick reflection is that the success of the
film—from an ideological POV, which I think is fair given that it’s a tendentious
piece, right?—is in the subtlety with which it approaches all the viciousness and
hypocrisy that’s wrapped into obligatory flag worship. That it’s so close in its aesthetic
to actual flag propaganda. A film that attacks the flag head on or turns it into the
object of a roaring joke would have been less effective at illustrating the power
invested in the flag. Which is a scary amount of power.
My thought, in conclusion: Even considering the power of the flag as a national symbol,
perhaps the riskiest thing about this little video is not that it questions patriotism, parodies the Pledge
of Allegiance, or maligns Old Glory; but that it combines sarcastic speech and subversive images in a way that
leaves interpretation open to the audience.