The title, Black First, American Second, immediately declares the politically-conscious nature of this work. Black First, American Second reflects for African Americans the inescapability of being discriminated against as Black before being included equally as Americans in the public imagination. By juxtaposing the image of the black body with his highly graphic rendering of the American Flag, Hammons creates an incisive visual metaphor for what it means to be ‘black first’ in the United States. The image of the American Flag has a history of being appropriated by many artists, most notably by Pop artist Jasper Johns in his 1954 Flag, and with more political motivation by artists like Betye Saar, Ray Lewis, Faith Ringgold and Hammons who have used the flag in their work as an ironic symbol of the discrepancy between the promises of the US Constitution and the realities of a disenfranchised and disempowered black citizenry.
Yet the combination of the figures' expressions, one peacefully in repose, the other crying out, and the symbolism of the American Flag, also adds a level of ambiguity to the work’s interpretation. Are Hammons’s figures cloaked in the flag, wearing it like a protective shroud, or is it smothering them, marginalizing the figures’ position in the artwork by concealing them?