Colin Kaepernick and The Star-Spangled Problem
I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. — Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man”
January 27, 1991, marked the date of Super Bowl XXV, the war for the title of the true king of New York between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants. Honored to represent their respective conferences, both teams were ready for the battle towards clinching the championship trophy. However, for the thousands of people in the stands and millions more who viewed from around the world, an even larger battle occupied the deepest spaces of their hearts. America was a nation at war.
10 days into the Persian Gulf War, America needed a message of hope, comfort and inspiration as their children and loved ones were thousands of miles away fighting for their country’s effort to combat the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and spread enduring freedom to the people of this land so far away. We the people needed something we could believe in. We needed a sure thing. And in 1991, nothing and no one was more inspirational, poised or sure as the Voice herself, the late Whitney Houston.
At this time, Whitney Houston was America’s sweetheart. If you needed to cry, laugh or be inspired, it only made sense for America to call on Whitney. We all remember where we were when we watched Whitney take to the Tampa Stadium field, dressed in America’s calling card; the colors red, white and blue and a wig fit for a deaconess. Whitney provided the medicine that all of America needed through singing “The Star Spangled Banner”, our national anthem, as part of the pre-game ceremony and a nationwide moment of healing. Houston’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” left the world speechless and eyes tear filled. Each note perfect, dripping in hope, triumph and patriotism. The performance went on to set numerous sales records and was even rereleased to further critical and commercial acclaim in the wake of the September 11th attacks of 2001. Whitney’s version of the anthem will forever be the standard that all other singers who dare tackle the song must live up to. Whitney Houston and the words of Francis Scott Key provided the solace so many American’s needed.
Beautiful story isn’t it? But, one would be remised to not observe the clear and blatant dualities and the complexities that exist here right?
Mere months before the murder of a 15-year-old Black girl named Latasha Harlins by a store clerk:
and the brutal state sanctioned beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.
Only a year before the eventual acquittal of the officers involved in King’s beating and the $500 fine and community service imposed upon Latasha Harlins’ murderer which sparked the Los Angeles riot.
And of course, only a year before, the shoddily installed stitches over the wounds of racial tension in America would rip at the seams and gush profusely over the trial of the century, that of OJ Simpson, accused of the violent murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Whitney Houston, a Black woman, was chosen as the muse to bring the country together by singing the anthem of a country who’s very founding and national ode were rooted in the quest to enslave, silence and oppress people who look like her. Whitney was asked to bring a little peace into the hearts of an America at war through her music. But we must also remember that Black people in America had been fighting a civil war since we were first brought to this land. Where was our comfort? Our song of solace? It makes one wonder; who’s America was Whitney singing to?
The sordid relationship that exists between professional sports, the Star Spangled Banner and protests of racism is long documented. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, members of America’s Olympic Track team, raised black gloved fists in the name of Black power while on the winner’s podium as the anthem marched on in the background, setting the stage for one of the most iconic images in sports history. In 1996, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, refused to stand for the singing of the anthem because his Muslim faith stood in opposition to the ideals he believed the American flag stood for, namely tyranny and oppression. And today, Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers joins the ranks of the many socially aware athletes who laid the foundation before him by making the decision to no longer stand with his teammates and observe the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of each game in the name of solidarity with Black men and women across the country who have been murdered and marginalized in the name of racism. Instead, the quarterback chose to sit on the bench, flanked between coolers of Gatorade and silently make his voice heard.
When asked why he opted to not participate in the observance that dates back to the early 1900’s of professional sports history, Colin, in full J. Cole bewildered fro and scruff, stated: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Where is the lie?
Kaepernick further stated that his protest will continue until he observes significant change in police brutality and many other issues relating to racial relations in America. While he did not give a barometer for how that would be measured, I think it is safe to say Colin knows he will be in it for the long haul.
As Terryn Hall points out, Kaepernick may have joined the echelons of social justice bae along with Jesse Williams for many of you. However, as expected, the backlash was harsher than Alicia Keys singing at the top of her register at an MTV Unplugged performance. Many people called Colin’s actions selfish and blatantly disrespectful to the sanctity of America. Some called him un-American and anti-military. Many others called him a nigger. While others called him a hypocrite and felt the need to remind him that he makes millions of dollars and doesn’t actually live the life he protests. Some opted to burn his jersey in effigy. And others even accused the athlete of not being Black. Where does this venomous behavior stem from?
America is a peculiar place. This country demands so much respect of it’s people but tends to give so little respect in return. Especially to those who are members of poor and minority communities. What is even more peculiar is the fact that these demands are based on the notions of historical significance and respect for America’s founders, yet the very people who make these demands know so little about their own history as nonwhites in this country as well as American history as a whole.
For example, we all know the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,”. It was embedded into our brains along with the “Pledge of Allegiance”, “My Country Tis of Thee” and “The Thong Song” as an American rites of passage. But what many of us do not realize is that as a country, we only use the first stanza of the song as our anthem.
Oh say can you see,
By the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed,
At the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars,
Through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched,
Were so gallantly streaming.
And thy rocket’s red glare,
Thy bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through thee night,
That our flag was still there.
Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.
We all remember the story we were told during US History in high school about the anthem’s origin as well. The anthem was written by Francis Scott Key. The tale is a harrowing account of Mr. Key as a prisoner on a British ship during the War of 1812 as an ode to true patriotism and bravery. As key watched American troops fight towards freedom from the British in Baltimore, he was so compelled and moved that he wrote this poem.
But if you ease that ass on down the yellow brick road just a few steps further, you will understand that the history of this song and its writer is much deeper than what we have been taught.
During this time period, a group of runaway slaves bonded together to join the British Royal Army in exchange for their freedom. The group called themselves the Colonial Marines. It should come as no surprise that the hero of our story, Mr. Key, was vehemently opposed to this group of men, and their cause. Unlike Jay-Z, Francis Scott Key’s wasn’t only a writer for himself and others. He served as the District Attorney of Washington, D.C and was a part of the country’s elite White circles. He supported the institution of slavery, a devout Christian (of course) and believed that Black people were mentally inferior to whites and therefore should be pitied.
A true patriot of the times.
Clearly, the fight for independence by the Colonial Marines stood in direct contradiction of Keys’ beliefs of Black inferiority and by possibly obtaining freedom threatened to unravel the threads of the institution that kept the fabric of this country he loved unconditionally together, slavery.
It was at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1815 where Key along with his troops, and the Colonial Marines first met face to face in battle. Needless to say, the Colonial Marines got in that ass, quick fast like Ramadan, before capturing the city of Washington, D.C. and essentially burning it’s most notable spaces to the ground. While I’m sure Key had his fist balled up like Arthur as he watched these “inferiors” prove to be victorious, he and his troops retreated.
A few weeks after this crushing defeat, Key advocated, as a non-prisoner, for the release of an American from British captivity while aboard a British ship during the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Though the American troops lost the battle, the high level of British death at the hands of our troops moved him to write “The Star-Spangled Banner”, a poem of four stanzas.
The third stanza in particular deserves special scrutiny.:
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.
Yeah. The blood from the slaves who chose to fight for the British will serve as a remedy to the pollution of the British as it will wash away their footsteps. This stanza specifically serves as a champion song in the face of slaves who chose to fight for the British in efforts to obtain freedom in exchange for their service as they knew they would never obtain it from America. This is our national anthem. That’s that bull.
America, we have a Star Spangled Problem.
This idea of being American being explicitly tethered to the love, respect and admiration of a flag, a song and a ceremonious pledge of allegiance to an ideal of a country has also proven to be problematic to countless citizens in this country defies all realms of logic, reality and empathy. How do you ask someone to pledge allegiance to a country that has never pledged its allegiance to them? How do you ask someone to salute a flag that bears stars that represent states that at some point each enacted laws to enslave, oppress and or segregate them? How do you demand that someone show respect to a flag that bears red stripes that represents the bloodshed for this country to be free and independent yet have no respect for the actual living breathing human beings in this country who have, currently do and unfortunately always will shed more blood at the hands of violence sanctioned by the very states that waving banner seeks to honor? How do you ask someone to stand and sing with pride and honor a song, an anthem, that literally celebrates the institution of slavery and the killing of Black people? How do you demand that a Black man stand on his two feet, call himself a man and participate in pageantry performance of an anthem that demonizes Black people for taking their freedom and liberation into their own hands, making a decision to stand up against oppression, and declare that their Black lives do matter?
America’s fixation with twisted patriotism and the demand that everyone must share the same common feelings of patriotism and pride for the anthem when our collective histories are starkly different in this country baffles me. Has anyone stopped to consider that maybe the America you see when you look above the fruited plains can possibly look a little less majestic when viewed through the eyes of a Black man?
And how ironic is it that the backlash that Colin is receiving now for his decision to observe his constitutional right to the freedom of speech and symbolic speech bears so many similarities to the very struggle for freedom that the Colonial Marines fought for in 1815? Like the Colonial Marines, Colin is fighting for his freedom and the freedom of Black people around the world to be able to not only live freely, but to live period. He too is a Black man who dares to stare bigotry in the face and rather than demand that his rights be given to him, he has realized his freedom and his Black pride is not theirs to give. He’s taking it. It is his birthright. He alone owns his Blackness and he alone is the only who has the power or authority to control it regardless of how he decides to display it because it is his authenticity. It is his patriotism. The fight for Black rights has always been deemed to be unpatriotic. How much has changed?
The obvious answer to where this anger stems from would be the fact that Colin Kaepernick is a Black man, in spite of what some of you may say. But, I believe the answer is more complex than that. It’s because he is a Black man that has the audacity to defy authority and love, celebrate and not compromise himself in a society that tells him and every other Black man, woman and child every day that they are not worthy of such self-validation.
Honestly, it should come as no surprise that many fans of a sport so deeply rooted in racially biased practices, also exhibit racist behaviors. Sports culture has always reflected the broader attitudes of society. When it comes to American society, the broader attitude is always the notion that white people have full autonomy to police Black culture, lives and attitudes. This proves especially true in reference to the policing of the image of the Black male persona.
Malcom X once said, “The white man will give you the liquor bottle and then arrest you for being drunk.” How many times have young Black men been told, whether directly or indirectly that our only viable options in life are dribbling a ball, picking up a microphone or succumbing to the streets? Even though that is a lie from the depths of hell, as our options are endless, why is it that when a Black man does opt to follow the path of professional sports, the moment he does anything that makes a white person uncomfortable, he is demonized?
What happens when a Black man has the courage to love himself? This isn’t just Kaepernick we are talking about here. We have seen the same derelict treatment railroad the careers of Allen Iverson, Michael Vick, Randy Moss, Marshawn Lynch, Muhammad Ali and even Cam Newton’s ole backpedaling ass. All Black men. All innovators in their craft. All uncompromising in their Black manhood. All celebrated by society at one point, but celebrated with a motive, money. The moment these men stood for something, is the moment white society turned their backs on them and that celebration turned into a bitter and cold reminder that you sir, are still Black and still not my equal. Same script, different cast.
But we won’t turn our backs on you. We support you Colin. You are not anti-military; you are pro-freedom. You do not disrespect this country, you show utmost respect to a cross section of people in this country who have been disrespected and alienated for centuries. You are not unpatriotic; you just refuse to be patronized. We don’t stand with you, we sit with you, both literally and symbolically.
And maybe you are un-American.
Because it seems that the way many define being an American means that you completely ignore the pleas of your fellow citizens and focus solely on yourself. You don’t fight for the rights of other people if they do not look like you. You don’t try to understand or empathize with the struggles that people outside of your immediate life circle go through because they don’t affect you. For some it seems that being an American means you oppress and marginalize other people in the name of patriotism, purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain. If that is the definition of being an American, I’m booking the first flight to Wakanda.
The conflict between being Black and America and the Star Spangled Banner will always exist as long as systemic racism continues to be the land of the law. Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave? Good question. Let’s sit like Colin and wait for the answer.