At last week’s convocation for Beloved Morehouse, I did not stand for the U.S. anthem. Perhaps those who have not sat near me in times past may have thought that I was a Colin Kaepernick copycat.
However, I have not stood for the anthem for about four or five decades. Sometimes, colleagues have teased me or worried about me “not being able to stand.” But, of course, I leap to my feet for “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Let me explain. But first, a disclaimer. I come from a military family, and I’m the only non-Republican in my family of origin. My family never would have made it from the depths of New Orleans poverty had it not been for the GI Bill – and I do not forget that the whiteness of my family of origin gave us significant unearned privilege in the application of GI benefits.
In expressing his gratitude for and love of the United States, my dad (rest in peace, Pop-Pop) erected a flagpole in the yard so that he could raise the U.S. flag. I dearly loved my dad, even though he believed that President Obama is a socialist. I love my whole family. And I respect them.
The point is that I offer respect to those who have a completely different perspective from mine. For example, I have heard friends say that they pledge allegiance and honor the flag because people of Africa built this country and deserve to claim it. (And I heartily agree that African people utterly built this country, with additional unpaid and underpaid labor from Chinese people, Latinos and many more minorities.) Some friends stand in honor of loved ones serving in the military. Others salute the flag because they want certain of its principles to be realized. Those thoughts make perfect sense to me, and I honor those who hold them.
But for me, the flag represents something else. I see the flag and I think of the estimated 18 million people living in what is now the U.S. prior to European entry, and that by 1890, only a quarter million indigenous folks lived.
I think of over 12 million Africans, says historian Henry Louis Gates, who were stolen and brought to the “new” world to build countries in South America, the Caribbean, and what became the United States. (How many died on the Transatlantic voyage? How many were actually taken?). I think of Jim and Jane Crow and lynching and the way that Confederate symbols began creeping into southern states’ flags once Black people began to achieve more rights long denied them.
I think of the concocted war in order to steal the Southwest from Mexico. I think of the way the U.S. put absurd immigration limits on the numbers of Jews escaping the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s. I think of the more than 800 U.S. military installations across this planet and what, in my opinion, those installations are actually protecting (think $$$).
[At this point, I must step back and bow my head in prayer for the many young people in uniform who have died or been deeply harmed by U.S. military actions. Certainly, many of you died believing that you were fighting for far nobler principles than those of brute capitalism. I honor you for serving for your beliefs.]
I list a mere fraction of the things that wave through my mind when we sing the U.S. anthem. If those multitudes of facts/images/truths in my brain were things of the past, perhaps I could honor the U.S. flag, even though I would still deplore the “bombs bursting in air,” the violent language, and the verses that Colin Kaepernick’s action brought to our knowledge. Perhaps.
But, as William Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
Many may argue with me about these next words, but I do not believe that racism has lessened, at least, not in my 63 years upon this planet. Oh, yes, things have changed and some things are much better for people of color and minorities in the U.S., thanks to the unimaginable courage and determination of true freedom fighters.
But, no, the racism is just as present, perhaps even more so with current, uncritical media attention given to certain candidates for office, and perhaps even more so over the past eight years with President Obama in office. What I see is that we White people simply change strategies and masks.
I believe that imperialism is even more present than in the year of my birth, flying so deeply under our collective radar.
Hatred and oppression have so many names that are all too alive in 2016: anti-Semitism, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, disrespect/disregard for the poor, LGBTQIA-phobia, sexism, immigrant hatred, mentalism, Latinophobia, Asian stereotyping, “reservations” for indigenous people … how many do I need to name?
How many deaths must I claim?
The past … isn’t even past.
Though there are many people of this country to celebrate, the ones I honor most are the ones who have worked and fought against the prevailing national ideology. When I want to feel pride in my country, the many names and faces of those who resisted with their very lives are the ones in my mind.
For me, the U.S. flag and the U.S. anthem do not represent them. The U.S. flag and U.S. anthem do not represent the person I strive to be.
So, thank you, Colin and those who are joining you. You are using your fame to accomplish knowledge and awareness that my years of anthem-resistance never could.