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For Black America, Absolute Love of Country Is Impossible

Colin Kaepernick's protest reflects our contentious relationship with the U.S. flag and national anthem.

Associated Press

As a backup quarterback, Colin Kaepernick likely will be sitting on the bench for the San Francisco 49ers’ opening game of the NFL season on Monday night. But there will be more eyes on him—at least before kickoff—than the starting quarterback, whom most Americans couldn’t pick out of a lineup. Kaepernick may well be the most famous athlete in America right now, and not for anything he did with a football. A little more than two weeks ago, he sat out the national anthem before a preseason game because, as he later explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

A lot has happened since then to keep this story on the front page. Kaepernick jerseys were burned, while sales of it skyrocketed. There were the dueling hashtags of #VeteransAgainstKaepernick and #VeteransForKaepernick. Some notable current and former NFL players and coaches—including Niners legend Jerry Rice and Kaepernick’s former coach, Jim Harbaugh—expressed displeasure with his message or tactics, while others declared their support. Some went a step further: teammate Eric Reid joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the anthem at last week’s final preseason game, and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane and soccer star Megan Rapinoe also refrained from standing during anthems at their games. President Barack Obama was even asked to weigh in on the controversy during a press conference in China this week:

He’s exercising his Constitutional right to make a statement. I think there’s a long history of sports figures doing so.... I don’t doubt his sincerity, based on what I’ve heard. I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about. And if nothing else, what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.

It would be foolish, given the level of attention the simple act of sitting (or kneeling) has garnered, to declare Kaepernick’s protest a mere kerfuffle. It exposed a fault line between hardline patriots, who believe the national flag and anthem are beyond reproach, and citizens for whom patriotism is not absolute or unconditional but rather contingent on the country’s treatment of its citizens. But as a black woman born and raised in America, it will never surprise me to learn that a person of color—no matter his wealth or prominence—has a complicated or even contentious relationship with the U.S. flag or “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

I grew up visiting an aunt in Grand Rapids, Michigan who hung David Hammons’s African American flag on the wall in her family room, rather than flying the traditional red, white, and blue on her lawn. I attended predominantly black public schools in Baltimore, Maryland, that taught us James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (sometimes referred to as the “black national anthem”) in tandem with any number of patriotic songs that were penned during the slavery or Jim Crow eras.

I learned to sing both. Though the Pledge of Allegiance stopped being part of our daily morning routine after elementary school, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a staple at sporting events and school assemblies in middle and high school. But annual viewings of PBS’ Eyes on the Prize series and days-long VHS marathons of the Roots miniseries were also part of our experience, making it impossible to think uncritically about America as the land of the free.

For black citizens, there is nothing binary or absolute about love of country. Black American patriotism has always come with caveats, an uneasy negotiation between how our ancestors arrived on U.S. soil and how we’ve invested labor and military service, both voluntarily and involuntarily, since we got here.

We’ve also been denied all kinds of valued labor. Kaepernick, for instance, plays in a league that didn’t fully integrate until 1962, when Washington’s NFL team reluctantly added its first Black player, Bobby Mitchell. As the NFL’s own website acknowledges, “NFL owners had informally agreed to ban black players” in 1934, despite allowing a few black athletes to play in the league since the 1920s, and didn’t begin reintegrating until 1946. Kaepernick is the successor of Kenny Washington, the first black player signed after the unofficial ban was lifted, and of countless other black athletes who endured racist epithets from players and spectators alike—epithets that these racial pioneers repeated in interviews as an act of public shaming and resistance.

Kaepernick’s ambivalence toward our flag and anthem, specifically, also has plenty of historical precedent in American sports.

Standing on the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics, black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a gloved fist during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Smith told Vice in 2012 that he was “on a mission” to “change [America’s] policies, in terms of equality, to change its policies in terms of equal rights, and the right of all people in a country which the constitution has promised to protect.” Carlos, meanwhile, has said that black items he wore on the podium variously represented black childhood poverty, shame “for America’s deeds,” and those killed by lynching or during slave voyages.

When recruiting Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey admonished Robinson to don “the armor of humility” in order to endure the frequent taunts of white players and fans alike. Jackie Robinson later wrote in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made:

Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.

Even more examples abound outside of sports, perhaps most famously James Baldwin’s 1965 op-ed in The New York Times, “The American Dream and the American Negro.”

It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.

Given that this ambivalence has long been common in the black community, perhaps the backlash to Kaepernick’s protest should be more baffling than the protest itself. Then again, as long as prominent black Americans—athletes, entertainers, and even our sitting president—have taken a stand to protest racism and inequality, many white Americans have responded by policing their actions and challenging their right to perform them.

If there were any way to placate white opposition to a black athlete’s protest of racial discrimination, Kaepernick would likely have found it. After being accused of showing a lack of gratitude for our veterans, he amended his action from sitting to kneeling, as a show of respect. He’s clarified that his position is neither anti-military nor anti-American. When Sarah Palin, among others, claimed his wealth disqualified him from protesting for the underprivileged, he pledged to donate $1 million of his salary to various organizations committed to social justice (a donation 49ers are matching). And on Wednesday, presumably to intercept speculation that his protest is a capitalist stunt, he announced he’ll be “donating all the proceeds I receive from my jersey sales back into the communities.”

I can’t recall a single public protest against American racism that wasn’t criticized as unnecessary, poorly executed, or outright un-American. That knee-jerk opposition—that unwillingness to engage in the issue, while criticizing the action of resistance—always proves the legitimacy of the complaint. Kaepernick says he’ll continue his protest until “there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent.” Like generations of black athletes before him, he may spend the rest of his life taking a knee—and taking heat for it—without his message ever getting through to those who need to hear it most.