The Black Country flag isn’t racist – it’s a symbol of struggle and pride

My home, the Black Country, is an area north of Birmingham many wouldn’t be able to point to on a map. It isn’t the most glamorous place in the UK – it served as inspiration for Mordor in Lord Of The Rings. And yes, our accent is arguably even worse than Brummie.

But what we are proud of is our regional flag. After a competition in 2012, the flag, featuring a black, red and white background with a thick chain, represents our home and our heritage. It was designed by Gracie Sheppard, a 12-year-old schoolgirl from Stourbridge. It is celebrated and flown by Black Country locals.

However, the newly elected Labour MP for Wolverhampton South-West, Eleanor Smith, does not share in this pride. For her, the flag represents racism. Smith said that she had ‘serious concerns about the racist connotations of the flag, particularly the fact that chains are being used to represent the Black Country’. ‘The white-on-black imagery used together with the chains… when you break it down, I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t worry me as a black person’, she said.

It seems that Smith might need a lesson on local history. Industry is what forged the Black Country, and industry is what inspired Sheppard’s design. She based the flag on a quote from Elihu Burritt, a 19th century American ambassador and diplomat, who described the region as: ‘Black by day and red by night.’ He was describing the forges which lit the night, and the thick air pollution which hid the day – depicted by the flag’s black and red background. The white centre of the flag represents Stourbridge’s 225-year-old glass cone.

Smith’s point about the chains is also wrong. The flag’s chain represents the famous forging of chains for agriculture, ships and industry in the region. It also represents the chains of injustice broken by those who fought for workers’ rights. In 1910, female chainmakers in my hometown of Cradley Heath went on strike for 10 weeks to win the first ever minimum wage.

Smith’s attempt to paint a symbol of industrial heritage and workers’ struggle as racist reveals how out of touch she is with her constituents. She said that she would prefer a flag ‘that represents us all as a collective rainbow of people’. But we already have one – our flag is displayed from Wolverhampton to Dudley to West Brom. It’s found on bumper stickers, flies outside parliament, and, most importantly, it’s hung from the windows of people who are simply proud of their history. This is why I fly the Black Country flag – it reminds me of home.

Ieuan Joy is a writer and student.

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