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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

Yankee Doodle Dandy

This is from a later flag which controversially covered up the breast

This is an interesting Fourth this year. It comes as a surprise to exactly no one that the Fourth is going to be just as divisive and aggressive as the rest of the year since the election has become.

Personally I've been struggling to find something in the holiday to celebrate. Admittedly, the celebration for me has always been a little muted. If you are a fan of American History really the celebration has to be. You can't celebrate the empirical conquest and subjugation of millions without at least a hint of regret. In that past I've celebrated not the country itself, but more the spirit of what the country is, that hope, the belief of what we could be or what we aspire to as a nation. The melting pot, the free place, the shining city on the hill, the example of real justice and humanity to the world. It's not where we are, but I can wave a flag and watch a parade and think of what we could be with a real sense of hope and celebrate that way.

This year I felt like I needed something a little more tangible.

It happened on a car trip my daughter and I took recently. She's reading signs and things as we travel these days from her seat in the truck. She asked me at a stop light, "Is that Wonder Woman?" What? I said, since things often come out of context from the back, I was seeking a little more to go on. "She has a spear, on that car, on the police car." I looked over my shoulder and there was a VA State police cruiser sitting beside us. On the side of the car was the familiar obverse side of the state seal. "Oh, no that's not Wonder Woman, her name is Virtue."

As we sat and talked about the seal, and what it meant for as long as her attention could take it, but it got me thinking. Maybe this was the deeper more tangible element that I was looking for this year.

The seal has an interesting history. Originally it was intended to separate itself from the heraldry of the English aristocracy. It was intentionally meant to hearken back to hints of the Roman Empire, something that the early American leaders aspired to in their ideals about the republic and in this case in the use of the Latin "Sic Semper Tyrannis," which has often been mistranslated as "Death to tyrants" but is truly "This always to tyrants." It was also written in John Wilkes Booth's journal after murdering president Lincoln. The phrase is originally attributed to Brutus as he plunges the dagger into Julius Caesar, thus ending his grab for power.

Before we go any further, yes, of course these symbols were chosen by a room full of white men, who at the time didn't see people of other colors as actual people and saw women as possibly less of an actual citizen in their newly organized government. Yet, I feel as though regardless of the intentions of the symbols in the past, we are free to understand them now with a fuller power.

Virtus is indeed a woman, even though she is attributed to be the personification of "manly" virtues such as valor, courage, character, and worth. According to myth she lived in a high craggy place only attainable to those who could exert themselves to climb there. If we can unbind the misogyny -- that's a great story. Here on the state seal is the personification of the good in humanity, yet, something that is known in her mythos to be achieved only with great struggle and sweat. She stands, victorious over the tyrant, who's crown sits in the dirt useless.

The message is clear. For the people of this new state, only by our good character and willingness to struggle can the falsely powered kings be overthrown. I like that. I can celebrate that. I can get behind that and work for that. This ALWAYS to tyrants. It's a subversive battle cry and a dire warning about the power that the gathered masses have.

Virtus' left breast is also exposed -- except for that time when they covered it up with a breast plate in the 1800s (And again in 2010 by Ken Cuccinelli, come on Ken, get with it). In Amazonian lore, they had their left breast covered as a sign of their readiness for war, yet here it is exposed. A sign surely that the battle is done (as is also the downward turned spear), and also I think an image of nurture to those who will benefit from the fall of tyranny. Incredibly the VA seal is the only seal to host nudity, so breastfeeding in public in the commonwealth should be no problem. Just point to the state seal, and tell them that you are feeding the virtues of this great state into the next generation.

Virtus' sword is also worth noting. It is the parazonium, a weapon showing authority without the need for aggression. Officers and the like used it, and it was intended to send the message "I am so in charge of what's going on, I only need a ceremonial sword."

So there she stands. Our symbol of Virginia. Victorious, but at the cost of a battle and hardship, yet a serene authority gathers around her as she stands ready to move beyond tyranny into a time of nourishment. The men who voted on her as the obverse seal did not intend for that symbol to be for all people, but we, and have to some degree, changed that. We are still changing it. She has become more than they intended for her to be, which is the way of all symbols.

Like the flag. Like the Fourth of July. Like America herself.

We forget that before our country looked to an old white man as the personification of our country, we had another in his place. Columbia. She was our lady from before the Revolution took hold. She, like our country, was made up from nothing more than a dream of what this new place might be someday, and it is for her that our nation's capitol district is named (District of Columbia). The very first national anthem? Why, "Hail, Columbia" of course. First played at Washington's inauguration. It remained our national anthem until 1931. Imagine that. You might think you've never heard it, but it is still the entry march for the vice-president. A sorry state for this epic song if you ask me. For generations Columbia was the spirit of America, and you will find her reaching out in iconography to people who need help. I think it is from her that we get the idea that America desired to rush to those in need across the world. She was a strong and incredible woman who led and fostered the good dreams of our country from it's earliest days. We sang "Hail" to her for almost 200 years, and she changed and grew to encompass those who were once slaves, and the immigrants who came to our shores. For WW I she called people to arms capably without the accusatory finger jabbing everyone in the face (UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU), and instead held the flag and sword in hand ready for battle. Also, Columbia often sported the phrygian cap, which is associated with what the Roman slaves would wear once emancipated (the irony of this imagery as chosen by a governance of whites who owned slaves was apparently lost...) Her name is purposeful related to "columba" the dove constellation, so that her very name means peace and is tied to the stars. She was strength when strength was needed, compassion for the humanity of the world, and an ancient defender of freedom.

Where are you now Columbia?

She was of course a symbol of the women's suffrage movement, and it is not an accident that it took only 11 years, from the ratification

of the 19th Amendment in 1920, to 1931, when Columbia's anthem was replaced. Columbia had crossed the line. As women gained a greater voice, Columbia was buried beneath her more masculine counterpart, Uncle Sam. It seemed the male backlash murdered this older emblem of who "America" was intended to be. Men's fragile egos just couldn't handle women having actual rights and being the symbol of our country. Columbia was stricken from the record of memory and deemed gone. Or was she?

Perhaps in the suffrage movement Columbia found her true home. In the hearts of all those who still yearned for equality and freedom. Perhaps she stayed there in the hearts of men and women who wanted equality and truth to win the day, and didn't let our society rest with the 19th Amendment but went on to inspire the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, and the peace protesters, and on and on to those who stand up against the tyranny of oil companies trying to destroy sacred land, to those who will not allow the richest among us to poison the air and water we drink. Perhaps Columbia still stands sword in hand in the heart of every person who feels the need for her will to defeat the tyranny that once again sits in control of many lives. Urging us, singing her song, and making true patriots of those who yearn.

This is what the Fourth of July is about. It cannot be a time to rest easily and mutely watch a parade yearning for a regressive return to a time when America was "great." America is at her greatest when she strides forward to meet those in need, regardless of what it costs. Columbia urges us onward to the Virtus' mountain, to struggle, to work, to sweat together to achieve her favor. America is at her greatest when we put our foot on the necks of rich tyrants who refuse to embody our heritage, who are misogynists, who are racists, who never had to work for their wealth, who have never sweated on Virtus' mountain, and who instead of building others up, only put themselves first and make themselves great. When we chant the names of the mythic women who are responsible for our nation, and chant their cry. "This always for tyrants."

Those in power should shudder in fear at those who know their history. The power has always rested in the hands of people, and our inspiration has always come from strong women who gird their breasts for the fight and raise the call to battle. The tyrants of America should cower as we celebrate this year. Columbia is not dead. She leads us on to Virtus' mountain who demands we crush the tyrants in the name of our freedom.

That's something I can celebrate.

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