In the wake of Governor Nikki Haley’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol building, a columnist from Boston has started to profess that the Massachusetts flag is also offensive and racist.
“Though the Massachusetts state flag is not as overtly abhorrent as the one that flies on South Carolina’s state capital grounds,” Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote on Thursday, “it is still pretty awful.”
The state flag of Massachusetts depicts the state’s Coat of Arms: a blue shield on a white plain marked by a white star, a gold arm wielding a sword, a Latin motto that translates to, “By the sword we seek peace, but peace under liberty,” and the central figure — a gold Native American man holding a bow and arrow.
The Coat of Arms is riddled with symbolism that refer to the state’s history. The single star is meant to represent Massachusetts as one of the first Thirteen Colonies, while the Native American’s arrow is positioned downwards to symbolize peace.
Abraham, however, believes that while it may be a representation of Massachusetts history, it’s overall message is indicative of one of the state’s more shameful moments in state history.
“It is hard to read it all together as anything but a flag designed by and for the colonial conquerors who made the Bay State,” Abraham wrote, “The ones who won the land by all but eradicating the people who got here first.”
Abraham expresses that she believes the sword, and therefore the Latin motto as well, are meant to represent the English settlers’ victory and oppression over the Native Americans, thus making the entire state flag culturally offensive.
On the other hand, the secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts attributes the arm and sword to the Massachusetts province’s fight for freedom from the control of England as the imagery was added to the state seal during the American Revolutionary War.
Additionally, many vexillologists — professional flag scholars — have interpreted the centrally-focused figure to be a loyal Native American ally of the Massachusetts settlers.
“The image is generally supposed to be that of Squanto,” academic Joe McMillan wrote as the Coat of Arms’ legal definition. “[Squanto was] a friendly Indian who provided crucial counsel and assistance to the first English settlers, the Pilgrims, following their arrival at Plymouth in 1620.”
Abraham did not account for who the Native American on the flag represents, but she did state that she believes the arm wielding a sword is oppressing the anonymous Indian because it is located above his head.
“It depicts oppression,” Abraham quoted from the executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, John Peters Jr. “To have the sword over our head…it signifies a policy that has affected all tribes.”
Controversy over the significance of the Commonwealth flag has sporadically flared up throughout state history, but now Abraham is calling on the people of Massachusetts to “step up” and “take this on…while we’re on the subject of offensive flags.”
Nonetheless, Abraham still recognizes that her movement to abolish the Massachusetts flag is not synonymous to that regarding the Confederate flag in South Carolina.
“Clearly, our state flag is not in the same league as the Confederate standard, the banner carried by those who fought to keep black people as slaves,” Abraham stated. “The Massachusetts state flag is more in the camp of the blindingly archaic.”
“State seals across the country are rife with the conflicted imagery of the periods in which they were produced,” Harvard journalist Garrett G.D. Nelson wrote. “Hopefully, though, [Massachusetts] will find that the contemporary commitments of the Commonwealth lie in the production of a harmonious future, not in re-fabricating elements of the past.”