This essay was first published on Huffington Post.com – October 10, 2017
“The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”
I wish that I had penned those words, but they belong to the Nobel Laureate, William Faulkner. I will, however, use them to administer proper weight to the notion that we are the sum of all that has come before us. From this, we cannot hide. Although sometimes, when it serves our purpose, we try with all our might.
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the first time during the national anthem, he did so to bring attention to, in his mind, an epidemic of police brutality. I believe he knew that although it was a peaceful attempt at protest, it was indeed a quiet riot destined to be met by a legion of misunderstanding. A hurricane of hatred and bigotry. A history driven need not to see the forest for the trees.
Now, “the knee” seems to have nothing to do with the death of Philando Castile and others. Now, much of white America is screaming that Kaepernick and those who have followed his lead are unpatriotic. That they are spoiled, rich, black men who are disrespectful of an anthem, which if read in its entirety, spins a sinister rhyme scheme of black slavery, black death and white supremacy.
“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…”
Now, much of white America is demanding that a wave of African-American bended knees recant and stand for the flag that has provided them with the care free lives that they now enjoy. Demanding that they stand in recognition of the men and women of the American military who have sacrificed for them. On NBC’s “Meet The Press,” Rich Lowry of The National Review, lectured African-American journalist Stephen Henderson. “People have died under that flag,” he said before adding. “You can have opinions about policing and what not, but don’t disrespect the flag.”
Yet, I wonder. Will Lowry and his like muster an iota of respect for the lives of black men who have died under the flag, choked and shot to death on camera. Lives that should not be reduced to what nots. How can he and others stand in front of African-Americans and demand anything from them with regard to the flag of the United States of America? Black Americans who have sacrificed as much as any other race in this nation, including a legacy of doing so for centuries while laboring in brutal bondage. Can you not recognize this sacrifice?
Lest it be forgotten, let us remember who sacrificed first. Crispus Attucks, a black man was the first to die as the American Revolution began. The first martyr to American freedom. And African-Americans have fought and died in every war since. Because there are movies to prove it, maybe you will remember the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment which suffered a casualty rate of forty percent, wounded, missing or killed as they assaulted Fort Wagner during the Civil War. Or the Tuskegee Airmen, who had to vigorously lobby to assume their right to fly in defense of their own country. They knew sacrifice.
I have not served in the military, but military service is well represented on both sides of my family, including my father. My family members served with distinction and returned home, suffering from wounds of the body and mind. Wounds acquired as members of the United States Army, the United States Marines, the Coast Guard and the United States Navy.
“No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.”
Sacrifice that earned the charred, chained and mutilated bodies of black civilians as well.
Sacrifice that earned a society represented by the United States flag, under which those men who served their country bravely, were not allowed to march alongside white soldiers in victory parades. Those men who came home to states and towns where they couldn’t vote, where they had to use colored only bathrooms and sit in the back of the bus. Where they suffered from discrimination in housing and from universities. Where their children received a separate but unequal education.
Remember, when it served your purpose, you refused African-Americans the honor of being respected by or showing respect for the flag. Now, when it serves your purpose, you demand we stand up and without acknowledging our history, pay homage to a flag that took its time recognizing that we were even Americans. Sorry to disappoint.
Even today, Colin Kaepernick wants you to know that African-Americans lag behind in income, home ownership and quality healthcare. African-American school children perform at substantially lower levels than the national average. And 12-year old black boys, like Tamir Rice, playing with toys are shot dead by police officers even as we remember a murdered 14-year-old named Emmett Till, about whom, Mr. Faulkner had this to say.
“If we in America have reached the point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, then we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.”
When I was young, I saw a picture. In it, hundreds of Ku Klux Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC without shame, their faces exposed. Almost every Klansman carried The Stars and Stripes, Red, White and Blue, Old Glory, The American Flag, The Star-Spangled Banner. In the background, the grand dome of the United States Capitol, rose into the sky. Years later, when I first heard the phrase “state sponsored terrorism”, this is the picture that filled my mind.
This is my perspective and that of many other African-Americans. Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest cannot be sincerely, thoughtfully or open-mindedly considered without the benefit of said perspective. It is my hope that, in due time, those raging against the knee, those who see a completely different flag than I do, will recognize all that Mr. Kaepernick has sacrificed by attempting to move us all toward a more perfect union.