On August 14th, 2016 during a pre-season NFL game, Colin Kaepernick, the team’s former starting QB, was spotted taking a seat on the bench while the national anthem was being played. The initial response to Kaepernick’s actions were innocuous and appeared to be the actions of a disgruntled QB, who had lost his starting position. However, just a few weeks later, Kaepernick would reveal that he had not stood for the anthem during the entire pre-season as a means of protesting police brutality and unjustified shootings of African-American men across the country.
Since his revelation, the maelstrom surrounding his one-man protest, which evolved from taking a seat to “taking a knee,” has engulfed the country into a national conversation about first amendment rights, respect for the military and the American flag, Black Lives Matter and the players’ right to protest.
Recently, President Trump ignited the national conversation at an Alabama rally, by imploring NFL fans and team owners to disavow the players’ protest and suggested “get the son of a bitch off the field” for those players who chose not to stand. Trump’s comments were immediately characterized as divisive and unproductive by several NFL owners and athletes.
When I initially heard about Kaepernick’s protest, I was puzzled about why he would choose the national anthem as his platform. As a celebrity and a wealthy athlete, he could have used his influence to convene a meeting with then President Obama to discuss his concern about a rash of shootings by police against black men. He could have also been instrumental in reaching out to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, to bring more attention to the plight of young black men and police brutality.
However, I believe he chose the anthem because it would generate the most controversy and strike at the heart of a sacred national pastime. In essence, his intention was to disrupt a sacrosanct display of patriotism that would serve as a “black fist” towards the establishment and shine a spotlight on social injustice. Whether, or not, this was the most prudent form of protest is also part of the on-going debate.
The issue of patriotism has long been an awkward conversation within the black community. African-Americans have overcome the viciousness of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings and desegregation, to find ourselves in a present day struggle to fully realize the American dream. The election of our first African-American President, certainly helped to further our country’s progress towards equality for all races, but it has not created a post-racial society as some have suggested.
As a black man in this country, I’m subjected to the same disparate treatment that many black men experience in our country. For example, I recently visited a drugstore, dressed casually in sweatpants and a baseball cap. Upon my entry into the store, the store manager gazed at me with a look of suspicion. I walked around the store for a few minutes but could not find the item I was looking for. Upon my exit, the buzzer was activated, although I had not purchased any items. I continued exiting the store, assuming that it was activated by an older white gentleman, who exited at the same time. The store manager immediately chased me down in the parking lot and asked to see what item I had in my possession that activated the alarm.
I was incensed because I knew that the older white gentleman was the person who activated the buzzer with his purchase, but the store manager assumed that I was a thief, without any consideration that the other customer was the real culprit. Once the manager realized that he was mistaken, he seemed almost dismayed that he had failed in his attempt to catch a black thief “red handed.” I began to chastise him for racially profiling me and admonished him for assuming that I had stolen from his store.
These types of incidents are part of our daily life as African-Americans, we bear the burden of being guilty before being proven innocent. We also bear the burden of forgiveness. If black people as a whole, internalized every slight, racial insult or misdeed – we would be psychologically consumed with hate towards our fellow white Americans. However, hatred towards white people is not a common refrain that I have experienced as an African-American.
The act of forgiveness is not an overt action on behalf of African-Americans towards society, it is a necessary process that allows us to disdain society’s mistreatment towards us without being consumed with hate. This process is not obvious nor is it recognized by white Americans, who are probably oblivious to the daily plight of African-Americans and our struggle to be respected and accepted, despite all of the contributions that we have made as a people to this country.
Since Kaepernick began his protest, many African-Americans have spoken out against the flag and the national anthem as a symbol of disenfranchisement and oppression, that were imposed upon them during a period of our history that didn’t recognize blacks as full citizens or human beings. However, African-Americans have traditionally stood for the anthem and saluted the flag, despite overcoming a tumultuous history of oppression.
The national anthem, with lyrics such as “Land of the free, home of the brave,” penned by Francis Scott Key in 1814, was written during an era when blacks were certainly not free and black history icons such as Benjamin Banneker, who made important discoveries about astronomy and published one of the early American almanacs, were not recognized as part of American history.
Anthem protests, confederate statue removals and Columbus Day revocations are just the beginning of a series of awkward, but very salient topics that need to be discussed. As America becomes less white, and Latinos, Asians and African-Americans become a greater proportion of the population, younger generations (as we’ve seen recently) have begun to ask questions such as, “Why do we honor confederate generals, who committed acts of sedition to protect their livelihood via chattel slavery?” and “Why do we honor Christopher Columbus who oversaw the rape, pillaging and murder of indigenous Americans?”
Most of my African-American friends are in full support of protesting the anthem, but I may be one of the few who view the flag and the anthem as a symbol of freedom for all Americans, especially African-Americans. The flag is essentially a symbol, that Americans utilize to portray their sense of patriotism and pay homage to soldiers who gave their lives for our freedom. Without the sense of symbolism, the flag is meaningless and the words of the anthem would ring hollow.
When I stand and honor the flag, I’m reminded of Crispus Attucks and all the brave black soldiers, who gave their lives to fight for freedom in a country that didn’t recognize them as free people. I stand and salute for all those soldiers, regardless of their race, who made the ultimate sacrifice so that I can exercise my freedoms.
America is far from a perfect union, but despite our history, I stand and salute because I am an American – an African-American who’s proud of the contributions of my people and the hope that we live out the true meaning of our pledge, “One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all..”