Flags on Porches

To butcher Robert Frost, something there is about a porch that loves a flag.

The most popular flag in the U.S. is, of course, the Stars and Stripes. Along with military bases, its customary perch is atop a vertical pole in front of and above city halls, courthouses, schools, and banks. The flag flies high, announcing an official status enjoyed by a public place.

The American flag signifies something different when it’s flown from a porch. For one thing, its pole isn’t vertical but mounted at a 45-degree angle. The flag becomes much less a symbol of dominion than of belonging, and the fact that it’s at a modest height and tilted toward passersby suggests an invitation, a belonging that is shared.

Part of this difference in signification is due to the porch itself. Porches are public and private places, unlocked and undefended. Passersby, known or not, can communicate with people on a porch. Strangers can step onto a porch.

I mention the American flag not only because of its ubiquity, but also because, like so many other public symbols recently, it’s become weaponized. To some flag-wavers, it’s a narrow and belligerent assertion of identity, a provocation to anyone not from America.

Those connotations melt away when America’s flag flies from a porch. The flag becomes a symbol of community.

In fact, it’s hard to think of an objectionable porch flag. Hard, but not impossible. It’s impossible for most Americans today to see the Confederate flag as anything much more than a symbol of white supremacy. Thankfully, in the past three years, I haven’t seen one on a Galveston porch. But during the 2020 election, there were several residents here who flew Trump flags instead of the American flag. One of them featured a steroidal Trump in a tank top wielding an AR-15, scowling. It was a weird combination of malice, virtue-signaling, and homoeroticism.

Resolved: Any flag bearing the image or the name of an individual is not a true flag.

A friend recently wrote that he gets annoyed when he sees someone in the U.S. flying the flag of another country. Why, I wanted to ask, be so thin-skinned?  This weekend, one of our neighbors, a British national who’s lived in the U.S. for decades, flew the Union Jack during the coronation of King Charles. Who are we to begrudge her that? Is our patriotism so frail?

In Galveston, the second-most popular flag is our state’s. The Stars and Stripes + Lone Star combo is even more in evidence than the Stars and Stripes alone. Texans tend to be proud of living in Texas. It’s that rare thing, a harmless form of chauvinism.

Flag etiquette is a thing, too, even on porches. Last year, on the social media site Nextdoor, a neighbor took umbrage at someone who flew the Texas flag to the observer’s left of the national flag. It seemed an odd thing to be offended by. But ever since, whenever I see some poor sap flying flags improperly arrayed left to right, I’m half-inclined to leave a Post-it.

The third- and fourth-most popular flags here represent sports teams and alma maters.

This neighbor sometimes flies a University of Virginia flag, but it’s baseball season and the Astros won last year’s World Series, so it’s a clean porch sweep for Altuve’s team.

One flag is curiously underrepresented here. The Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 by Ben Haith. The event that the flag commemorates, General Gordon Granger’s belated 1865 proclamation of freedom for slaves in Texas, occurred in Galveston. In 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday and, in 2021, a federal one.

The Juneteenth flag, a symbol of freedom, is a natural complement to the original one, the Stars and Stripes. They belong together, and nowhere more than on a porch in Galveston.

Our place.