Okay, class! I think it’s time for a history lesson.
With our country having emerged upon a very important and timely intersection of blackness, Americanness, and football, I think that it’s high time for us to uncover some of the truths and unfortunate historical contexts that have brought us to this very poignant moment.
I’m taking my cue from the 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who has been silently kneeling on the sidelines during the national anthem at his games in protest for the unjust treatment and oppression of black people at the hands of police officers. He has recently inspired many athletes across our country, professional and amateur, all the way to elementary students during the morning pledge of allegiance and our own Maury High School football players, to kneel in silent protest. A noble cause.
Many in our community, including Maury High School’s football coach Chris Fraser, have supported the students’ protest. In an interview with News Channel 3, Coach Fraser said “Their message is, there are inequalities and things happening in their life and in Norfolk they want to bring attention to.”
He continued saying that despite receiving some backlash for their decision to kneel during the national anthem, “I have absolutely no problem with it. To me, they were being respectful. They look their helmets off, they took a knee, they were quiet during the national anthem.”
A quiet protest. Kneeling in reverence and solidarity. A nod towards the racial injustice of both the past and the present. And yet they, along with Kaepernick, are receiving harsh criticism both nationally and locally. After Shaun King, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, retweeted the story of the Maury High School football team kneeling in solidarity, an onslaught of replies were thrown at the team. They have been called disrespectful, lazy, unpatriotic, irreverent, unintelligent, all the way to being called horrific racial slurs that only demonstrate the depths of the racism against which they are protesting. Many are calling them hypocrites for only kneeling and not taking a more active role in justice and activism. Put your money where your mouth is, they say. Though, perhaps their point for kneeling is to remind and encourage us to join the fight for racial justice. All by taking a knee during the national anthem. A reverential gesture. A position of prostration, homage, and remembrance. Quite the opposite of disrespectful, but actually quite thoughtful and bold.
But to what is this protest remembering and revering? It is not our country, but rather the countrymen and women who have been and continue to be oppressed under its flag. What we cannot ignore but rather must confront is our country’s history of racism, misogyny, and oppression. It has infected every area of our nation, from the first boots of colonialism that stepped onto marshy banks to knees that are bent on football fields. To ignore and to insist that this history has either been left behind or that this history is over-exaggerated is to see history from a blind and ignorant lens of privilege. But the reality is that you don’t have to look far to find it.
Let’s go to 1781 when Thomas Jefferson, one of our country’s most honored founding fathers, wrote Notes on the State of Virginia only five years after he wrote the declaration of independence. In this text, Jefferson gives breath taking overtures on the separation of church and state, individual liberty, the richness of America’s natural resources, and the inferiority of “the blacks.” After describing black people as having no mind to write or learn, having a foul smell, being designed as an animal for hard labor and little sleep, being incapable of loving their women and only desiring their bodies, he concludes “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” It should be no surprise then that when we look at the the creation of the constitution in 1787, our other founding fathers decided that black slaves were considered to be only 3/5ths of a whole person. Property to be haggled over for taxes and representation, more seats in Congress. Property that Jefferson himself possessed and exploited. Property who George Washington tortured and used their teeth for his own dentures. And these examples are minuscule compared to the litany of documents in our archives that incubate the racist imaginations of our historically revered national leaders.
Though we are two centuries away from these inaugural decisions at the birth of our nation, and many if not most of the institutionalized systems of racism have been dismantled, the remnants of these systems ring in our ears and in the lives of black people — if you choose listen and look around. Just take a quick look around our city of Norfolk and we can see the stains of our racist history in our court system, from the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of black youth, the labeling of “super predators,” the new Jim Crow, antagonism against the Black Lives Matter movement, segregated neighborhoods, schools, streets, parks, and on and on. This system of racism is where our children are being raised. It is bred and incubated in our country’s revered historical documents, national anthem, and founding fathers and subsequently interwoven into the American consciousness. And how couldn’t it? The same documents and historical figures who we revere as the ancestors of our freedoms and national pride are the very inscribers of racism and misogyny into our systems of governance, legislation and culture.
Recently, Boami Jones wrote an article in the Undefeated titled “Kaepernick is asking for justice not peace,” where he poignantly suggests that “While the major party candidates for president spent the week pointing at each other with charges of who is or isn’t the real racist, Kaepernick pointed at the flag and, by extension, every person who takes pride in the American flag.”
This suggestion naturally ruffled quite a few feathers. But if we consider for a moment that we live in a country where our founding fathers considered you to be 3/5ths of a person, a smelly, unintelligent, lustful person, property, that perhaps you would have a difficult time revering it as much as your white countrymen. Especially when you witness firsthand the racist imagination that your fellow countrymen have inherited from our founders. It may often be much subtler and undetectable to some, but it is also very obvious when videos of murdered black citizens scroll across our screens every day.
To deny the very obvious historical racism that Kaepernick and the players at Maury are protesting is not just ignorant, it is wrong. The work that he is doing is only un-patriotic to those who hold our country up to an infallible esteem and who ignore the very problematic and hurtful history of racism that many of our brothers and sisters in America experience daily. There is nothing noble about forgetting and ignoring that history and present reality.
That is why critiquing our country is important. It’s what moves our country forward and away from its dark beginnings of slavery and genocide, and towards a hope of more equality, freedom, and liberty. This is a freedom that has not solely been fought for by soldiers. It has been fought for by generations of oppressed people. People whose backs were striped with whips and held by chains. Necks that have hung from trees. Women who sat on bus seats. Children who first integrated into schools. Indigenous people who stand at Standing Rock. Football players kneeling on the side lines. Those are the patriots who demand that their country respect them and move us towards a greater freedom. A greater equality. A greater happiness. Kaepernick and the football players at Maury are actively participating in the National Anthem not by standing, but by kneeling in remembrance, reverence and in protest against the legacy of racism that has and continues to affect him and his ancestors. They are the patriots demanding for better and reminding us that the fight for freedom isn’t over.