Forty feet above America Street, a flag has flown for 21 years. It is a U.S. flag, but then again, it isn't.
With 13 stripes and 50 stars in the black-liberation colors of red, black, and green, the flag is an uncompromising piece of art planted in the historically black East Side of Charleston. Designed by Harlem-based artist David Hammons, it is one of the only pieces that remains standing from an ambitious city-wide art installation exhibit called Places with a Past, which involved 19 artists and took place during the 1991 Spoleto Festival USA.
Flapping above the rooftops of the surrounding houses, the flag is a curiosity to outsiders passing through, causing some drivers to slow down at the intersection to crane their necks and marvel at it. But to the people who live on and around America Street and see it every day, it has simply become a part of the landscape.
On a sweaty spring afternoon, a man who has seen the flag flying for two decades sits in a folding chair on the sidewalk along Reid Street. The man, who doesn't want to give out his name, lives next door to it and knows all about its origin, but he doesn't have much to say on the topic. "It don't mean nothing to me," he says in a voice as dry as cornmeal. "It's just like any other thing around here — you don't pay no attention." Jason Cooper, who just got his hair cut at a barber shop on Columbus Street, gives a similar response. "It don't mean shit to me," Cooper says.
Others are more opinionated. A man named Nate who has spent 50 years in the neighborhood says the colors have a clear symbolism: Black for the people. Green for Africa. Red for the spilled blood of African Americans on North American soil. "Well, it tells a story," says Nate, who prefers to just go by his first name. "You can be angry, you can be cool, you can feel whatever you want to. But the thing is, it tells the story of a sojourn of a certain race of people. You can be mad, and it doesn't matter. Nobody's going to listen to you no way if you get mad."
Marvin Smalls, who has lived for 30 years on the East Side, is mending the chain-link fence in front of his house and installing a wooden gate. His shirt is off, exposing a Black Panther tattoo on his bicep. "It's representative of the African American," he says of the flag, squinting down Reid Street toward the tiny park where it stands. "It's bringing the two together. People that don't agree with the American flag, they might be able to agree with that."
Beside the flag stands a one-story billboard, once emblazoned with an advertisement for Newport cigarettes. It now bears a faded, purplish monochrome image of a group of schoolchildren looking up toward the flag with eyes closed and lips pursed, perhaps in a song or a pledge. City ordinances prohibited billboards in residential neighborhoods, and yet, according to the book Places with a Past (about the exhibition of the same title), many existed in the early '90s, and a sizable portion of them advertised alcohol and tobacco in black neighborhoods. When Newport pasted a new, bright-orange advertisement over Hammons' photo a week after the show closed, the city helped Hammons to reclaim the billboard — and then started cracking down on other billboards in residential areas.
Jamal Brown, standing outside a fried chicken joint at America and Reid streets, points across the road at the image of his classmates from Wilmot J. Fraser Elementary School, who happened to be at the Mall Playground when Hammons took the photo. Many of them still live in the neighborhood, he says, and are regularly greeted with a blown-up photo of their adolescent selves. Those children are in their 20s and 30s now.
Shameeka Green is walking south on America Street with her arm around the shoulders of her 13-year-old son, who is nearly as tall as she is. She can see how the portrait of the kids fits with the flag: "It's probably representing his people, wanting to do better for the community," she says. Her son, Cosohn, stops to take a look at it, shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun with his hand. "When I first saw it, I thought it wasn't the American flag," he says.
Mohammed Idris, a community worker known as the Walking Imam, has never been a fan of the installation, and for just the reason that Cosohn pointed out: It's not an American flag. "To me, it looks like a foreign flag, and it looks like some children are up there looking at a foreign flag, and that could almost go for treason," Idris says. "I spoke to the city about that flag. I told the mayor and them they should take it down ... You see the youths looking up, and they've been looking up for years. What are they looking up for?"
William Dickerson, a retired newspaper and website designer who lives in a sherbet-orange house on nearby South Street, has a nephew in that photo. He is glad to have the art installation in the neighborhood, as it gives him an opportunity to talk to young people about their heritage. "I tell them it's a flag that represents black pride," Dickerson says. He left town in 1974 to attend the Atlanta College of Art. Back then, he says, the jobs available to black people in Charleston were mostly menial labor, and there were "not a lot of things that a progressive black person could get into." These days, he's back in the neighborhood where he was raised, drawn by the cords of a loving family and a retirement in the place that feels like home.
Back in 1991, the flag installation was seen as "kind of radical," Dickerson says. "Now it's acceptable. A lot of people would say, 'Well, why are you talking about black pride? Where's your American pride?' But we have to find ourselves first, I think."
An older woman who prefers not to give her name is resting on a plastic lawn chair on the America Street sidewalk. She has seen that flag and that picture every day since she moved to the East Side 11 years ago. "When I see the little boys looking up, it seems like they have a goal in mind," she says. "People walk around looking down, but they're looking up like — oh, gosh — enlightened by something."
Across the intersection from the flagpole is another, even more ambitious project by David Hammons: an impossibly narrow Charleston single house. Situated diagonally on the corner lot and built to be not much wider than a single doorway, it is a pastiche of classic Charleston building techniques, with three types of traditional roofing and five types of siding. Painted in white on its blue, windowless broad side is a challenging quote from author Ishmael Reed: "The Afro-American has become heir to the myths that it is better to be poor than rich, lower class than middle or upper, easy going rather than industrious, extravagant rather than thrifty, and athletic rather than academic."
Art critics heralded Hammons' three-part project as a towering political statement, a crucial work in a long career arc in which the artist rarely shied away from racial commentary. In 1983, he had attached a basketball hoop and backboard to the top of a telephone pole in Harlem and titled it Higher Goals. But when he came to Charleston for Spoleto in 1991, he originally intended to build a house with an uprooted tree laid across its roof — an image that surely would have hit close to home less than two years after Hurricane Hugo laid portions of Charleston to waste, but not an overtly political one. When Hammons arrived in the East Side, he met a building contractor named Albert Alston who was restoring many of the historic homes nearby, and he changed his plans.
Hammons enlisted Alston to help him build the house on the city-owned property. They kept Hammons' plan of a narrow house built at an angle, but Alston prompted the artist to make the structure a place for education. With salvaged parts from old buildings, the two men cobbled together a house that demonstrated all the rich architectural tradition that existed on the East Side. They attached placards with simple explanations — "1x8 beading siding," "V-crimp," "tongue and groove novelty siding" — to highlight the features people walked by every day.
Alston is retired now, but he has since been invited by communities around the world to set up similar educational projects in struggling neighborhoods. Once, in a developing nation, he helped turn a beloved teacher's former house into a museum that then became a tourist attraction. He says he still comes out almost daily to make repairs and improvements on the America Street structure, dubbed the House of the Future. There is always a wall that needs re-painting or a window that needs replacing, and the yard must be swept free of the chip bags and soda bottles that blow down America Street like tumbleweeds.
As for the quote on the wall, Alston says it was a good fit for the neighborhood, even if it was confrontational. At the time, he remembers a number of young people from the East Side had shown promise as athletes. They received scholarships to play sports at out-of-state universities, but many were kicked out of school within six months.
In general, Places with a Past inspired no shortage of controversy and discussion. Spoleto Festival founder and director Gian Carlo Menotti famously threatened to resign over the project, telling newspaper reporters that the whole thing was a set of "silly, sophomoric stunts" and "hardly worthy to be seen in a cheap discotheque." House of the Future inspired consternation on the East Side as well, although Alston says he and Hammons would frequently pause from their work to explain what they were doing to anyone who asked.
Joseph Watson, born and raised on the East Side, remembers the day when a neighbor on America Street came over to tell him about the odd little house and the quote written on its side. He was outraged.
"At first, I thought it was something that should not be up there," Watson says. He had worked hard to build a career as a truck driver, and he took umbrage at the idea of an outsider coming into his neighborhood and making such a blanket statement about some mythical "Afro-American" who was happy being poor. "But then I took it as a challenge to prove it wrong," he says. "Because someone thinks that of me doesn't mean that I will sit back and accept it that way. I should be able to prove to myself that I am better than that."
Albert Alston smiles when he hears about Watson's change of heart. "That's the purpose for doing this, to draw some attention, to make you think," he says. "And that's what art should do. That's what art should do. Most people look at art as being appealing, but as long as it's appealing, then you forget about it."