When you hear the national anthem of the United States of America, what does it inspire in you?
Do you picture the "rockets’ red glare," hear the "bombs bursting in air," and does your heart swell with love for the "land of the free and the home of the brave"? For some, patriotism is sacred — the true measure of what it means to be American. Seeing people wave flags and chant "USA!" on the Fourth of July never bothered me, but when the devotion becomes fanatical, I keep my distance.
As a child, I had no idea that the anthem was written by a slave owner, nor did I know the implications of its lesser-known verses. So I sang it as I was taught to do, hand over heart, eyes riveted on those "broad stripes and bright stars." My tune has since changed — I can’t swear loyalty to a country that maligns people of color, women, LGBT people, the poor, and others. When somebody asks if I’m proud to be American, knowing what I do about history and the present, the answer is no.
It’s difficult belonging to three marginalized groups, but my blackness has brought about more complications than I can enumerate here. There is so much talk about freedom as an important cornerstone of our society, and yet it comes with conditions. When people of color criticize America, we are told to either shut up or go back to where we came from, even if we were born here. It’s worth pointing out that this ultimatum is rarely given to somebody white. Recall when former President Obama had his nationality questioned by the Tea Party and Donald Trump, who maintained that Obama was born in Kenya. And when Trump finally admitted his error, he did so without so much as an apology. This is the brand of patriotism I object to, because it allows people to veil racist sentiment without accountability.
I couldn’t even tell you what football team Colin Kaepernick played for until he first took a knee to protest the oppression of people of color in 2016. This ignited a firestorm, and if you wanted to witness some of the worst of humanity, all you had to do was visit the comments section below any article or video about him. In her article for The Washington Post, Angela Decker examines Kaepernick’s style of protest, which couldn’t have been more peaceful.
“It’s hard to be arrogant, or stupid, or prideful, or shortsighted, or any of the other things Kaepernick is alternately accused of being, when you are kneeling.” It would have been so easy for Kaepernick to issue an apology, get back in formation and focus on his sport. But the cause is too great, and he remains as committed to it from the bench as he was when he was playing. People say he’s still unsigned because of his kneeling, but you can’t tell me that the protest doesn’t have something to do with it. Kaepernick wants to have a conversation, but America is disinterested.
Since more athletes of color have taken a knee, there has been a fresh round of backlash, and of course our verbose POTUS couldn’t resist chiming in. At a rally in Alabama, Trump denounced the protesters as "sons of bitches" who should be "fired" for disrespecting the flag (see that hyperpatriotism again?). This is unbecoming behavior in a president, but quite normal in a man who revels in his own ignorance. People of color read between the lines, and you can bet your bottom dollar that the applause would have been deafening if Trump had said something along the lines of “I don’t care about their struggle! These niggers are being paid millions to put on a show, and they better do it or else!”
Trump’s comments are perfectly aligned with America’s general attitude about black people. We are little more than commodities, valued perhaps for our ability to entertain and not much else. Ideally, America would do away with us altogether, but since that isn’t feasible, it mocks our pain, makes light of our anger, and tries to force our submission by any means necessary.
As Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said while addressing the House, “There is no basis in the First Amendment that says that you cannot kneel during the national anthem or in front of the flag.” Choosing not to participate in any demonstration of patriotism is only disrespectful when we do it, because America would sooner place value on a song and a flag than human lives. Specifically, black ones.
In his segment “Hansen Unplugged,” sportscaster Dale Hansen weighed in on the president’s remarks and the all too obvious double standard: “It has not gone unnoticed that Trump has spoken out against the Mexicans who want to come to America for a better life, against Muslims and now against the black athlete. But he said nothing for days about the white men who marched under a Nazi flag in Charlottesville, except to remind us there were good people there.”
Hansen noted that the president didn’t refer to a single one of those neo-Nazis and white supremacists as "sons of bitches," nor did he call for them to be fired from their jobs. It was of no consequence whatsoever that these people subscribe to the ideology that gave rise to slavery and the Holocaust, among other horrors. Hansen also recognized the selective outrage with respect to the American flag, which “we use to sell mattresses and beer. We wear it as a swimsuit. We wrap our bald heads in a flag bandana and stick it in our pants because we disrespect that flag every day.”
So, what is the real cause of your outrage, America? Is it really about the flag? Or are you angry that some people, black and white, don’t want to pledge allegiance to it?
The next time you hear "The Star-Spangled Banner," stand up and sing along with gusto if you choose. That is absolutely your right, and if it’s a recording of Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl, I might shed a tear because it’s difficult not to. But I will remain seated because I’m tired. Tired of the inability of some to connect the dots. Tired of the current administration headed by an unstable, notoriously thin-skinned man who can’t see past his privileged bubble. Tired of Becky and Preston centering themselves when people of color discuss their struggle. Jesus, I’m tired.
At least I can be reasonably sure about one thing. If there’s to be an end to this madness in America, we won’t live to see it.
SPENCER JONES is a Renaissance woman who loves to write, read, draw, study languages, and interact with freethinking people. Follow her adventures on Instagram @dismantledthenovel.