As a student at Paine College in the mid-1930s, Frank Yerby published “Salute to the Flag” in the November 1936 issue of the school’s newspaper The Paineite. Eight years later, Yerby won the O’Henry prize for his short story “Health Card,” a story that focuses on a Black serviceman and his wife during World War II. I mention this story because “Salute to the Flag” also focuses on a serviceman that experiences racism at the hands of the countrymen he has fought for overseas during World War I. The story is, essentially, a prose form of the dramatic monologue. The unnamed narrator is dying, and a doctor is trying to save him as they speed towards the hospital. The narrator tells the doctor why he chooses not to salute the flag that he fought for during the war.
Only about two pages in length, “Salute to the Flag” contains numerous aspects that warrant discussion. For one, the narrator’s act of thumbing his nose at the flag rather than saluting it directly corresponds to historical as well as our contemporary moment. The contemporary corollary, of course, are the protests started by Colin Kaepernick last year when he knelt for the national anthem as a sign of protest for the continued systemic racism that plagues our country. In an historical context, the story calls to mind Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918), a play that, as James V. Hatch and Ted Shine note, “is an examination of the loyalty that the Negro owes to a nation that offers on loyalty in return.” Yerby’s unnamed narrator examines this issue and forcefully condemns the nation for its double standards.
Initially, the narrator and others “thought [they] were really making the word safe for Democracy and all that tripe.” They felt that when they returned to America ‘the white folks would have changed their ideas” and treated the Black soldiers as equals. What they had, according to the narrator, was “hope,” a hope that a man would be a man, Jim Crow would disappear, and lynchings would be no more. However, upon returning, America experienced one of its most violent years in regard to race relations during the Red Summer of 1919.
Perhaps the story takes place during the summer of 1919. We do not get a clear indication of the time period, but we can assume some proximity to the end of the war. I say this because the narrator is dying due to a gunshot wound. He thumbed his nose at the flag and someone (it is unclear who, but we can assume a white man) shot him in the stomach. A mob convenes, and he police remove the narrator from the crowd. The narrator’s act protest infuriates others, and rather than listening to his reasons, someone chooses to act violently by shooting the narrator in the stomach. Again, this act recalls contemporary debates surrounding the current protests of the National Anthem and other symbols of patriotism and heritage.
Overall, Yerby’s examination of patriotism and whether or not to fight for and respect a country that denies someone their humanity is at the forefront of “Salute to the Flag.” In fact, the narrator passes a flag at the end of the story, and knowing he is about to die, he asks the driver to slow down so he can thumb his nose at it. Throughout his oeuvre, Yerby explores, in various texts, the numerous injustices that the narrator and other soldiers he discusses face. Rather than focusing on all of them, I want to take a moment and highlight the constant surveillance of Black bodies by White Americans, even outside of America.
The narrator tells the doctor about his friend and fellow serviceman Bob. After receiving the Croix de Guerre, both Bob and the narrator received a ten day leave in Paris. There, the narrator “found out that it didn’t make no difference if you waded through blood for this country if you was black” because hate and racism know no boundaries. In Paris, a white woman approaches them and asks for directions. Bob tells her to follow him, and the three continue their walk.
As they traversed the city, they encountered a group of “Georgia crackers” from “an all-Georgia regiment” who had just arrived in Europe. The Georgians “forgot they was six thousand miles from Georgia,” and they could only see “a nigger and a white woman” in front of them. Becoming ravenous, they jumped Bob and stabbed him to death in the street. When the M.P.s arrived, the Georgians had run away, and he M.P.s arrested the narrator. Jeanette, the French woman, testified for him, and he was released. This incident, on top of others, caused the narrator to thumb his nose at the flag.
Feeling they needed to protect the sanctity of Jeanette, the “Georgia crackers” take it upon themselves to police Bob, even in Europe. Yerby incorporates a similar scene some 30 years later in his 1969 novel Speak Now. Stranded in France, the white wealthy daughter of Southern tobacco magnate, Kathy Nichols, marries a Black Georgia, Harry Forbes, to hide the fact that she got pregnant outside of marriage. Harry concocts the plan, and the marriage is meant to be a sham. Harry will divorce Kathy when she returns to America and her parents will never realize he is a Black man. However, the couple fall in love, and things change.
At one point, Kathy is about to fly back to America. At the airport, Kathy espies a man looking at her and Harry, and she tells Harry, “That man over there. He’s a Southerner. I can tell.” Kathy wants to rile the man up, so she has Harry kiss her. When Kathy leaves to go the restroom, the sixty year old man stops her and asks her if her parents know that she has married a Black man. Kathy tells the man it isn’t his business, but he rejects this and counters, “[I]t is my business, or I’m making it mine, just like I hope your Pa would make it his if he caught my daughter doing what you are, honey.” HE continues by telling her, “What you’re doing is mighty wrong . . . the good Lord never intended for the races to mix. You hear me, child?”
The Southern man, in Paris, sees it as his duty to police Kathy and Harry’s relationships because she is White and he is Black. This surveillance, even away from the South and Georgia, exacerbates the psychological ramifications of racism and oppression. The legal strictures to keep Kathy and Harry separated have no place in France, yet the man still vies it as his business to enforce his antimiscegenation agenda through the guise of protecting Kathy and her family.
The narrator in “Salute to the Flag” does not go into the psychological reasons why the “Georgia crackers” view it as their duty to uphold Jeanette’s purity, but we know that they view it as their role to protect what they perceive as her White Womanhood. Both “Salute to the Flag” and Speak Now highlight the constant surveillance inflicted upon Black bodies even wen individuals reside far away from America. Racism knows no national boundaries. It exists across imaginary lines, and Yerby highlights this through his writing, both early in his career and throughout.
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