As the four of us pedaled along the Monongahela River and through McKeesport, Pa. — a sleepy steel town 11.9 miles from downtown Pittsburgh — I interrupted our debate about Ghostface’s place in America’s literary canon to remind our friends of what to expect next.
“So just so y’all know, once we leave The Port, we probably ain’t gonna see any more of us until we get to Maryland.”
“Word. We’ll be aiight. But I’m just sayin’.”
When my wife and I and two of our also married friends from D.C. decided a year earlier to bike the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) — a 150-mile trail stretching from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md. — of course we knew that once we left the greater Pittsburgh area, the number of black people we’d see would steadily decrease until there’d be none. Almost like we were water from a faucet that’d just been shut. Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip and then the drops just stop. A reminder couldn’t hurt, though.
Survival while black in America depends in part on the successful retention of a curricula of traveling-based truths. One of which is that once you leave the city — and this is Anysomewhatmajorcity, Anywhere in America — you’re less likely to see us, and you plan and act accordingly. For some of us, that plan and action means you just don’t leave the city, like, ever. For others it means you don’t plan to spend time outside of the city unless there are enough of us together to meld into a blackness Voltron if a microburst of whiteness happens. I even have a friend who refuses to enter any sort of woods or visit any sort of place that could be considered even vaguely rural unless he’s with what he calls a “white buffer.” Which is just a white person. His girlfriend thinks he’s irrational. My wife thinks he’s a genius. I think they’re both right.
We split the trip in increments and reserved spaces at bed-and-breakfasts in three towns. Day one, we biked 35 miles from my house in Pittsburgh’s Northside to West Newton, Pa. Day two, we traveled 53 miles from West Newton to Confluence, Pa. (This was also the day that most tried stamina, pain tolerance, snack supplies, Advil stashes, night vision, water retention, bug-repellent efficiency, friendships and at least one marriage.) Day three took us 31 miles from Confluence to Meyersdale, Pa. And on the last day we pedaled 32 miles to Cumberland.
As we approached West Newton (population: 2,550, 98.6 percent white) that first day, something expected but still peculiar began to happen. We started seeing more American flags. In yards. On bumper stickers. Embroidered on hats and T-shirts. Painted on walls outside of businesses. Flapping on trees, streetlights and porches. You’d think we’d just crossed a border into a different country. One of us called it “a flag orgy.” We laughed.
And then, after stopping at the B&B, showering, changing and venturing out that night to find some food, that peculiarity shifted to a latent menace. We were reminded, through the stares, the whispers, the pauses and the glares, of who we were. Of where we were.
Of course, we didn’t need the reminders. We didn’t forget. But they were sending a message — a reminder in case we forgot to remind ourselves — and the flags were the first dog whistles. Similar experiences happened in Confluence (population: 654. 98.5% white) and Meyersdale (population: 1,892. 98.8% white). The less black people, the more flags. The more flags, the less welcome we felt at restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations. As we trekked through this foreign land, biking through the backwoods valleys, and highlands of southwestern PA, the bed & breakfasts became our embassies.
We made this trip in August 2017, the same year Donald Trump became our president, and the same month of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., but a deep ambivalence for the flag existed long before then for me. The performative patriotism that wields the flag as a signal of how American you happen has deep correlations with the sort of anti-blackness that generally treats us like we’ve crashed a wedding we weren’t invited to. Though the flag itself hasn’t changed since 1960, when a 50th star was added to represent Hawaii, the relationship black Americans have had with it has been as messy and motley as the relationship America has had with us. Who could dare question, for instance, whether a man who fought for a country that had yet to recognize him as a full citizen, as my Great Uncle Wilbur Young did in World War II, was patriotic? The audacity. But how exactly are you supposed to feel about that flag if your first act as the first black fireman in New Castle, Pa., as Uncle Wilbur was, was to extinguish the flames from cross burnt into the yard of a black family who bought a house on the wrong side of town?
I didn’t always regard the flag itself with caution. My favorite picture from my teen years is one of my mom and me standing in my parents’ living room while I’m wearing my (then) second favorite shirt — a flag-mimicking Hilfiger rugby with the Stars and Stripes repurposed to spell TOMMY. I’ve mindlessly saluted the flag in dozens of gymnasiums during the Pledge of Allegiance before basketball games, and I’ve mindfully felt chills and even pride when witnessing American athletes draping themselves with it during the Olympics. Just three years ago, my wife and I dressed our then 7-month-old daughter in a flag onesie for her first 4th of July.
The election of Donald Trump calcified my ambivalence into an ambiguous wariness stemming from an unambiguous truth. The sort of (white) people who clamber to distinguish themselves as the True Americans have weaponized the flag, manipulating it to antagonize those they believe to be less American. Trump didn’t create this dynamic, sure. Prominent American flags are hard to ignore when scanning footage of lynchings and Klan rallies from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. But the bedrock of Trump’s political career is the ceaseless exacerbation of this feeling. His rallies and his Twitter account exist as chum-delivery devices, articulating and instigating a binary Americanism where you’re either his ally or an enemy to the state. It’s the birther campaign. It’s the messaging implicit in Make America Great Again. It’s telling four American congresswomen to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” It’s labeling Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling during the anthem to protest police brutality “sons of bitches.” Still, he’s not a trailblazer as much as he’s a powerful spiritual co-signature for a pervasive ecosystem of long-simmering beliefs. That the only True Americans are white. (The rest? Guests.) That there’s such a thing as less American Americans. That the flag belongs only to the True Americans.
The irony, of course, is that perpetual vulnerability has gifted us — those less American Americans — a lucidity that transcends dollar-store patriotism. We know more about America that those who deem themselves the True Americans do. We know how it smells and what it sounds like when it snores. We know our country the way a rabbit knows a wolf. But the true Americans consider this sort of acuity — and the freedom to articulate America’s pervasive contradictions — to be a threat. To their sensibilities. To their compulsory need for mythologizing their history. Our history. To their collective hagiographies. To their freedoms. And when Kaepernick committed the blasphemy of “disrespecting” the anthem and the NFL, the truest of the Americans wrapped themselves in the flag, coating themselves in a red, white and blue escutcheon, daring us to tug at it.
I feel certain that both the flag I just saw on PA Route 28, swinging from the bed of a Ford F-150, and the flag likeness I saw at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pa., wrapped around an AR-15 on a snapback baseball cap, were intended to intimidate. To threaten. “I am a True American, and you’re either with me or a threat to me.” Were each of the dozens of flags we saw in the white towns on the GAP trail erected with that singular purpose? Probably not. But the flags communicated to us that we’d entered the sort of communities where those considered less American Americans would be less welcome.
Since I began thinking about the relationship between flags and population, I wondered if it was less about stars and stripes and more that I may just be leery of predominantly white spaces. It’s not that the towns along our route were uniform in their support for Trump: around 25 to 35% of voters in these counties did not support him in 2016. But there certainly weren’t enough allies to make my skepticism unjustified. Attempting to divorce my feelings about the flag from my feelings about mostly white spaces is like trying to split my feelings about tornado warning sirens from the actual tornado.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t share that we made it to Maryland safely. And despite the stares, the whispers, the pauses and the glares in each town we stopped, by day three we were less alert of the ubiquitous flags and more concerned about lactic acid and whether the padded spandex we each wore would ever start working. I guess we’d grown so used to navigating True American terrain that it stopped registering. White supremacy is nothing if it ain’t rote.
Also, when I told my friends that we wouldn’t see any more black people until we got to Cumberland, I lied. We met two while at a rest stop between Confluence and Meyersdale. They were biking in the opposite direction, and looked even happier to see us than we were to see them.
They hadn’t been to Western Pennsylvania before, and before they got back on the trail, one asked what to expect on the rest of their trip. “Flags,” I joked. Neither laughed.