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January 22, 2002

Paxton examines post-9/11 American flag bearing

By Elizabeth Kurylo


In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the American flag was hard to miss. It flew from flagpoles, stuck out of mailboxes and covered car windows. Bumper stickers, T-shirts and lapel pins proudly burst with red, white and blue. People waved the flag, wore it and perhaps even made judgments about those who did not.

British-born scholar Felicity Paxton wants to know why.

She and her students in the graduate seminar, “Ritual and the Life Course,” also noticed that flags were more prevalent in certain neighborhoods and hardly noticeable in others, and that raised more questions.

“Seeing all these flags in neighborhoods and at every supermarket and every gas station, we thought, ‘We’ve got to study this,’” said Paxton, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory’s MARIAL (Myth and Ritual in American Life) Center. “But we’ve got to see whether there are significant ethnic, racial, religious or class differences.”

Motivated by curiosity—and an appeal by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to record how ordinary Americans reacted to the Sept. 11 attacks—Paxton and a few of her students and colleagues started knocking on doors.

In the course of tape-recorded interviews, local citizens explain why they display flags and what meaning they attach to them. They also are asked about how they heard the news on Sept. 11, how the attacks affected family life, and what ongoing impact the events have had. Interviews thus far have been conducted in a predominantly white, affluent neighborhood near Emory, and in a middle-class African American neighborhood in South Atlanta.

Paxton hopes to submit as many interviews as possible to the Library of Congress, which will preserve them in the Archive of Folk Culture. The Library of Congress did a similar project in response to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Field recordings were made all across America, in which shoemakers, electricians, janitors, cab drivers, housewives, students and many others expressed their opinions of the attacks and the U.S. declaration of war. The recordings were made into a series of radio programs and distributed to schools and radio stations. Today they are considered an invaluable aural resource.

The hope is that these post-Sept. 11 recordings will have a similar legacy.

Paxton’s research is just one example of the many studies and classroom lessons conducted across campus since the attacks on America. In another example, MARIAL’s Robyn Fivush, Dobbs Professor of Psychology, is studying whether “expressive writing” can help Emory undergraduates who struggle with emotions related to the attacks.

In this study, people are asked to keep diaries of their thoughts, emotions and how the attacks affected them. If researchers find this form of expressive writing to be effective, the hope is that doctors can devise specific ways to help people who experience long-term distress over the attacks.

Paxton is still conducting interviews, and hasn’t yet drawn any conclusions, but she has been surprised at how many people said they didn’t change their daily routines in light of the attacks.

“People have been remarkably calm,” she said. Most did not change travel plans, for instance, and most said they felt safe in their homes, at work and traveling. She also found that people were very willing to discuss their reaction to the attacks and why they chose to fly the American flag. “The response rate has been very good.”

Another surprise, she said, is that “the flags don’t mean the same thing from house to house,” even in the same neighborhood. In some cases, it is a symbol of grief and mourning. In other cases, it is a display of patriotism, unity and support of U.S. policy.

As part of her research, Paxton took photographs of how the U.S. flag has been displayed on buildings, at rallies and by ordinary Americans as they go about their business. Forty-six of these photos—taken in September and October in metro Atlanta, rural Georgia, Chicago and Ann Arbor, Mich.—are part of an exhibit at the MARIAL Center. The exhibit also can be seen online at

Some of the photos were taken at a peace march in Atlanta sponsored by several African American churches in the Cascade Heights neighborhood. Paxton was struck by the mix of young and older marchers and the way they used the rhetoric of the civil rights movement to express opposition to U.S. military action.

Both people who support the war, and those who oppose it, wave and wear the American flag. Therein, Paxton said, lies its power: “An effective symbol is one that ordinary people can engage at multiple levels and for multiple reasons.”




Back to Emory Report January 22, 2002

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