My only interest in high school and college football is the presence of marching bands, meaning I have pretty much zero interest in professional football, so I had never heard of Colin Kaepernick before last week. Last week Kaepernick, who plays for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to sit during the national anthem before a televised NFL preseason game, and the entire country went nuts (or so it seems).
It’s worth noting that Kaepernick also sat during the national anthem for two prior preseason games, and nobody made public comments at that time. Those games weren’t televised, but there had to be several hundred people who saw him sit. It’s also worth noting that Kaepernick is far from the first athlete of color to make such a silent protest. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a Denver Nuggets player, received tons of criticism in 1996 for sitting during the national anthem, and the NBA in fact suspended him for a game to appease the public. American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics. And the great Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography that after his experiences as the first black man to reintegrate Major League Baseball, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
The people who were shocked and appalled by athletes protesting the U.S. national anthem in decades past and the people who are shocked and appalled by Kaepernick’s actions today clearly have no understanding of the history of “The Star Spangled Banner”; what the flag and the national anthem actually stand for; or the complexities of a multiracial, multicultural society. And before we get into all that, I’d just like to point out that many countries don’t take their flags or national anthems anywhere near as seriously as we do in the United States. My dad lived in Nigeria for two years when he was a kid, and when they would go to the movies there, an image of the country’s flag and its national anthem would play at the end of the film. All the Americans and most of the British people in the audience would stand and wait till the clip was over, but the Nigerians would just get up, gather their things, chat with each other, and leave the theater without paying any attention to the patriotic display. Not to mention that for most people, the national anthem has different levels of importance depending on the context of the occasion. At a funeral or an inauguration, nearly everyone takes the anthem extremely seriously. But at sporting events, it’s usually less of a big deal. Orioles fans loudly shout “O!” when the “oh”s are sung. My dad and I are Braves fans, so we always sing “home of the Braves” at the end.
Here’s some important background information about “The Star Spangled Banner”: Its tune was borrowed from a British (not American!) drinking song, and its text comes from a poem by Francis Scott Key called “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which he wrote following an American victory against the British during the War of 1812 (which was started by the U.S., largely as an attempt to take possession of Canada). The first verse of the song, which is usually the only one that gets sung, sounds all dramatic and appropriately patriotic, but let’s take a look at the third verse:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
The first four lines are basically a big “eff you” to the British, accusing them of trying to take our country back (we were the aggressors, remember?) and celebrating how their “foul footsteps” were washed away by their blood. The fifth and sixth lines refer to the British policy of convincing American slaves to fight for the British with the promise of freedom for them and their families after the war. Key, who was a slave owner, a vocal anti-abolitionist, and a racist, basically celebrates the fact that the policy didn’t work out and a lot of slaves suffered terror or death as a result. I sure hope you’re wondering whether this song is really the best choice for our national anthem; I certainly am now, and a lot of people have been questioning it for years. I really can’t blame anyone who’s a descendant of slaves or who has a problem with American slavery for protesting it. (Interestingly, “The Star Spangled Banner” only became the country’s official anthem in 1931. “Hail, Columbia,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and “America the Beautiful” all served as official songs before 1931.)
I’ve seen more Facebook memes about this situation in the past six days than anything I can remember in the past year at least, and a number of them claim that Kaepernick’s actions (or lack of actions?) are offensive to military members or even an attack on their rights. I’m sorry; that’s bullshit. First of all, each of the branches of the military have their own songs, symbols, and insignia. The U.S. flag and the national anthem represent the entire country, and they’re closely associated with the military because the military also represents the country. The flag and the national anthem represent American manufacturing, the American government, American education, American sports, American zoos, American cotton candy companies, and all American civilians just as much as they represent our military members. Claiming that choosing not to honor the flag hurts military members is like claiming that one cannot disagree with an unjust war while also raising funds and support for the brave men and women who go to fight in that war because it’s their job. (Granted, the people who claim the former probably also claim the latter. But I’ve seen the latter in action, so it’s a totally false claim.) And honestly, military members should be celebrating Kaepernick’s exercise of his first amendment rights (and some certainly are). There is no law in this country requiring people to honor the flag in a certain way, and the passage of such a law would run completely contrary to everything the United States is supposed to stand for. Because of the very important work our military men and women do, we don’t live in a dictatorship! We have the right to stage a peaceful protest! We are not required to stand up for the national anthem! Colin Kaepernick is taking advantage of the rights ensured him by the bravery and sacrifices of our armed forces.
And let’s not forget why Kaepernick is taking advantage of those rights: he’s protesting the multiple injustices faced by people of color in this country every single day, which might, by some counts, be slightly less than those experienced by Jackie Robinson or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but “slightly less” doesn’t mean “negligible” or “okay.” Yes, terrible problems such as economic inequality, lack of access to education and community resources, and police brutality affect some white people. But they OVERWHELMINGLY affect people of color, because of centuries of a power system that’s been rigged against marginalized groups. Americans, one and all, should be appalled and embarrassed that people of color are still fighting tooth and nail for basic human rights in our country in 2016, but many don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and many more are a little bothered but more than willing to just ignore the issues because it’s easier that way. If I go to a football game and choose to sit during the national anthem, I might get a few weird looks from the people around me. But when an NFL player chooses to sit, especially during a nationally televised game, he sparks a national discussion about things that we need to be discussing. I applaud Colin Kaepernick for his bravery and conviction, and normally I would say that I stand with him, but in this particular case, I sit with him instead.
I’m going to leave you today with one of the best images I’ve seen on Facebook recently (it came to my feed via the Occupy Democrats page) and a video of Jimi Hendrix’s marvelously dissident performance of “The Star Spangled Banner,” so reflective of the political and social climate of both 1969 and 2016.