Various groups — and now Sen. Elizabeth Warren — are pushing to replace the seal and flag of the state as racist in promoting “white supremacy culture.” I admit that I tend to react instinctively in opposition to the removal of historic images or memorials. However, the Massachusetts flag dispute seemed strikingly similar to the debate that we recently had (and lost) at GW over our moniker “The Colonials.”
According to activist Marianne Vesey, the state flag and seal depicts a “colonializing and violent depiction that is really supporting the fact that white people are in charge of this world and that we have to subdue the Native American people.”
The official emblem of the State goes back to 1775 and was later adopted by Governor John Hancock and his government on December 13, 1780. The seal and flag have gone through changes through the years. The first seal, for example, depicted a nude Indian with a bush covering his groin. That image was later changed.
The current depiction is reportedly based on a composite sketch using the image of the Chippewa chief Thomas Little Shell III.
In fairness to critics, there is history related to older images that had offensive elements common at the time. During King Philip’s War in 1676, the Bay Colony ordered a seal with the words “In the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this Land / They giving us peace and mercy at their hands.”
The question is whether the current image of a Native American is itself racist as opposed to reflecting the Native American origins of the area. Many of the objections appear to be the juxtaposition of the sword above the head of the figure.
For some of us, it is reminiscent of our debate over the Colonials. The objections to the Colonials was entirely ahistorical and uninformed on its meaning. It did not matter.
For roughly 100 years, George Washington rallied behind our beloved mascot of the Colonials. Then someone declared it meant celebrating the colonization of other people, as opposed to resisting such occupation.
The petition read: “The historically, negatively-charged figure of Colonials has too deep a connection to colonization and glorifies the act of systemic oppression.”
It is nothing of the kind. The Colonials reflect our history as one of the oldest universities in the country founded at the direction of George Washington. Washington called for the establishment of a national university and left funds for our charter in in his last will and testament. President James Monroe approved the charter in 1821. It was meant to be a new university that reflected a new nation. This country was founded by colonials who forged a new vision for democratic process and individual freedoms.
Former Hatchet reporter Andrew Hesbacher, along with Rachel Yakobashvili and Emma Krasnopoler started the campaign. Hesbacher is quoted as saying “Colonialist, terrorist, murderer. In a lot of places that’s what colonials mean to people.” Of course, that is the value of learning about the true meaning of terms. The thirteen colonies were the seedlings that grew into a new Republic. This school reflects those founding members of our nation.
Many people objected that an initial vote to change the name was held with little notice and relatively few students voted. Even then it was close. The university then created a committee to study the issue, which seemed to avoid inviting those of us who had long argued in favor of the name. That followed a panel of discussion that notably omitted anyone arguing for the Colonials. It was clear from the outset that the name would be dropped.
Now Massachusetts is arguing the same ahistorical point. The sword accompanied the Latin motto “Manus haec inimica tyrannis ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem.”(“This hand of mine, which is hostile to tyrants, seeks by the sword quiet peace under liberty.”) Again, it was a statement against British rule. Rather than educate people on the origins and meaning of symbols, particularly the sword over the figure, it is now a racist symbol by acclamation.
Massachusetts has a rich history that helped shape this Republic and its ideals. It is part of our shared history; we are all beneficiaries of the patriots that rose up in the Bay State. The flag is part of our collective history. It is a shame to sever another symbol from the founding period without a full and honest discussion on the Massachusetts seal and flag.
The fear is that, once a movement coalesces around a racist claim, many fall silent out of fear of being tagged or attacked. We have seen that happen on many campuses. I hope that this will be different. Many of us are open to hear why this image is racist and now intolerable. However, the flag and seal should not be discarded in another mad fit of political correctness. For hundreds of years, this symbol and its precursors have rallied Massachusetts and served as a reminder of a shared legacy. We should give it more than a passing consideration in a rush to sanitize history.