The Status Quo: Regarding Colin Kaepernick and The Star Spangled Banner

Saturday mornings for the millennial: Coffee and your twitter feed (the new newspaper!). I follow a great deal of journalists, so a solid portion of the stories I read daily come from Twitter. That is when I first saw the rumblings of Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest of the national anthem. I wanted to know more, so I carefully scrolled through a Kaepernick search to find a story on the situation. Searching stories like this on Twitter usually leads to some never-ending wormhole of racism, anger and despair. As I sidestepped the egg-shaped landmines, I found a story from a 49ers beat writer. Kaepernick was sitting during the national anthem to bring awareness to police brutality. I felt and immediate sense of pride and horror at the same time, it’s something that happens often when I read about folks standing up to systemic racism and oppression. On one hand, I feel like a first day of school Facebook parent, but on the other hand, I feel an intense feeling of fear for Kaepernick’s safety and livelihood. In America, folks that fight for racism and oppression often have their private lives discredited to damage their public cause. Some have even met their mortal end because of it.

Ironically enough, America as a whole mourned the death of Muhammad Ali this year, an athlete that was far more outspoken on issues of race and injustice that Kaepernick has been thus far. Some of the same people who reflected thankfully on Ali’s contribution to America are now spewing indignation from the other side of their collective mouths. Racism (any of the “isms” really) is based in hypocrisy. It requires the user to detach themself from any sense of consistency with how they perceive the actions of people of color versus the dominant group. It allows the “kids will be kids” mentality to be bestowed upon Ryan Locthe while I’m black male children are viewed as adults on a regular basis. It is a suspension of reality where the person has carte blanche to pull any piece of the puzzle out for examination while ignoring any inconvenient truths.

Every culture has deeply entrenched traditions, in America the “Star Spangled Banner” is one of ours. Wherever it is played, people display great reverence to the song. In my mind, I have always questioned this reverence. I found myself in some odd purgatory during the national anthem, standing with my hands to my side, hat sometimes on and eyes always open. Recently a veteran and a person I considered a friend told a story that officially shattered any remaining reverence to the custom for me. He told a story of being at a military graduation. While feverishly praying and wishing good will and safety upon the graduates, another attendee removed his hat. He spoke of how, in that moment, it broke his true reverence. Traditions are cheap and empty without actions behind them. The Star Spangled Banner is the emptiest tradition we have. Every sporting event we trot out various singers, some famous and some not, to continue the lineage of this tradition. We canonized and hero worship veterans with this gesture but once they return home from duty, many don’t get the financial assistance and medical care they need. Kaepernick mentioned that but it’s clear that the outrage for his statement is place elsewhere.

As most American traditions, the Star Spangled Banner is drenched in racism. The author of “The Star Spangled Banner”, Francis Scott Key was a slave owner (shocking right?!). He believed that slaves and freed men where “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community”. Key spent most of his time as an attorney is Washington prosecuting freed black men and white abolitionists who wished to “associate and amalgamate with the Negro”. Key subscribed to the idea (as did Abraham Lincoln) of sending freed slaves back to Africa. During the Revolutionary War Key went alongside others (including James Madison) to demand the release of American prisoners, only to become prisoners themselves. The Brits planned an attack on a harbor in Baltimore and made several attempts to compromise the base. The Americans were resilient and their stronghold in Baltimore was maintained with minimal losses while the British suffered major casualties. Key watched all of this from a small cabin on a ship, the time spent there is when he crafted “The Defence Of Fort Mchenry”, the original title of the national anthem. The racism and prejudice is baked into a third verse that most are unaware of:

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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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.

While the Brits were not without their own prejudices, Key solidified his views in history. The above words describe what Key saw. The portion that jumped out to me the most was “No refuge could save the heirling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”. Heirling is a word used that means: person who does menial work for a small period. The Brits asked black men to join there army during the war for a chance at full freedom. Key was angry to see black men fighting against this country for that chance. As they died, he hoped the blood of those slaves and free men would cleanse America of the British invasion. It became a popular war song after it is inception, being played at all the American celebrations we’d expect (parades, 4th of July celebrations etc). In 1916, Woodrow Wilson decreed that it be played during all military ceremonies. The song played at sporting events throughout the late 1800’s as well. While the date is greatly disputed, it is clear that the song’s popularity is cemented during a World Series in the 1900’s (the most famous story being the 1918 World Series).

Clearly, like most things in America, the dark underbelly of our history remains in plain sight, but still very much unseen. The symmetry from those times to now is haunting, we as a country are only a few blocks away from our home, staring longingly back at our primitive nature wanting to sprint back to that way of life. Colin Kaepernick is just the latest soul willing to fall on the sword for humanity. He has been chastised as too rich to be qualified to speak on injustice, this while we tell those living the injustices to stop complaining and get a job. People who do not have an interest in seeing him enact any real change have questioned his motives and have required “next steps”, claiming the gesture is hollow without follow-up. He has been eviscerated for disrespecting veterans while simultaneously incorporating their needs into his cause. Finally and worst of all he has received conditional agreement on the issue. Many have agreed with his sentiment but not his means, setting some aloof conditions on when and how he can fight against the oppression he sees. Once again we see that black pain and poor people’s pain does not arouse the fervor in those that American tradition does. There will be opposition in any fight there is no doubt but the most damning thing to a fight of this nature is ambivalence.

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