I Can’t Sing America

Maybe Colin Kaepernick was right: this song isn’t the song to stand for.

Ooooh say, can you see?

We find ourselves again at a symbolic impasse. Just a year ago, Bree Newsome was climbing a flagpole to take down a confederate flag, to the dismay of some and to the relief of others. A few weeks ago, we saw WNBA players refuse to wear their teams’ shirts right-side out. And now, the news of Colin Kaepernick’s symbolic resistance dominates our headlines. His crime? He sat down. No ascension of flagpoles. No inverting of t-shirts. he simply didn’t stand. And his decision not to stand seemed to constitute a national controversy. How could he, some wondered. Others were less tactful about their disdain; hiding behind the anonymity of a tweet, they called him “nigger” and asked that he leave the country. Newsome, Kaepernick, and others held a mirror up to America, and asked it, “what do you see?” And, it appears, America can’t stand to see anything other than its best parts.

By the dawn’s early light?

But America is like that, though. America will speak the language of “diversity” and “freedom” until that same “diversity” and “freedom” no longer favor those who “think themselves white.”

And it’s been like this since America’s birth. America’s had really bad identity issues, operating in such a state of narcissistic bliss that it refuses to acknowledge its warts. America’s “dawn” was stormy, marked by the contradiction of freedom and slavery existing in the same place. America championed freedom, but extolled slavery; it embraced diversity, but held onto racial hierarchy. America’s “early light” wasn’t about revolutionary struggle, but rather about revolutionary suppression; it wanted to be free to enslave, to do what others had done to it. To miss this critical junction in our collective history, to hear heroic undertones in the national anthem, is to operate in the kind of cheap patriotism that allows presidential candidates to talk about black people to white people or to offer cheap promises of racial progress with a history tainted by explicit and implicit racist comments and policies. America doesn’t apologize, not because America doesn’t have to, but because America doesn’t think there is anything to apologize for.

What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming?

It is possible to think of these symbolic forms of resistance as sermons. If America has nothing to apologize for, then the mere exposition of America’s ugliness is a bringing of the gospel, an exhortation of truth in the face of sociopolitical lies.

What Kaepernick, those WNBA players, and Bree Newsome share, then, is a hailing, an ability to call something out, to identify someone or something for a specific purpose. But this isn’t the hailing of freedom spoke about in the anthem. These folks hailed the truth; they called the truth from its hiding place, spoke its name, and reminded folks of its existence. And the truth, as reluctant as it is to come out, emerged, showing up in the “niggers” and “go-back-to-africas” in tweeted responses to this symbolic hailing. Hidden in the twilight of cheap electoral politics and white supremacy (often masquerading as white fragility), the truth reluctantly emerged, showing us Americas real colors — not the red and the blue, but the white, punctuating each stripe and lighting up each star.

And the rockets red glare! The bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there?

The sad truth is, the hailing of truth always comes with a price. The exposure of contradictions comes with its own set of costs, economic or otherwise. We’re told that we’re not patriotic enough when we don’t stand up for the anthem; we’re fined for wearing shirts inside out; or we’re jailed for snatching down symbols of devastation. But we’ve accounted for these costs; what we struggle to account for is the cost of material resistance. It’s one thing not to stand up for an old song never written with us in mind; it’s another thing entirely to burn a building down, to destroy cop cars and bankrupt CVS’s.

And yet, this is exactly what folks were doing back in the day. We somehow have forgotten that the Boston Tea Party was an 18th-century version of a CVS-burning; it was the destruction of property to make a point. We don’t like to speak about the fact that “the rockets’ red glare” and the “bombs bursting in air” resulted in the destruction of property. The so-called “revolution” wasn’t so much a formal declaration of war (how could it be? “America” wasn’t a country yet) as it was an act of physical and symbolic resistance; and yet, when folks who do not think themselves white engage in the same kinds of revolutionary practices, we are met with new rockets: stun grenades and smoke bombs burst in our air, suffocating us and demanding our docility. America’s narcissism emerges again; America’s whiteness shines through when those of us kissed by the sun hail America’s truths from the twilight of America’s past.

Ooo say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The Star-Spangled Banner is a song about the persistence of the flag. It’s a song about a symbolic stance against supposed tyranny and oppression. It’s a celebration of a national symbol, the preeminent hymn in America’s religious services. I wish it were possible — I really do, because then I wouldn’t struggle so much — to see this flag as the symbol of freedom it supposedly is for others. But if patriotism demands my docility in the face of my oppression; if love for this country requires my silence in the face of my own death; if an embrace of my “Americanism” enjoins me to become the zombie enemy of a nation hellbent on my demise; if being an American requires my allegiance to whiteness, then I will continue to sit down when the flag rises, and leave my hand down when the song is sung.

Langston Hughes once said that he, too, sang America — that he, too was America. I echo his sentiments. One day, they’ll see how beautiful we are, and be ashamed.

But until that day comes, I’ll be sitting down with Colin Kaepernick, Bree Newsome, and all the other freedom fighters — famous or not — who would hail America’s truths without her permission. I may sing something, but for now, it’s not America.