Over the past few days, I’ve shared personal stories of what it means for me to be a Black man in America. In response, I’ve received touching messages from friends and colleagues who want to make sure that I’m safe and mentally okay in this land where it often feels unsafe and not okay when you’re Black.
I’ve also been asked, “What can I do to help?” That’s been tough to address, because it’s often meant needing to ask my friends to put themselves in awkward positions with others in their life. But I now see that the only way for someone to truly be my ally is to sometimes BE as uncomfortable as I’m forced to be.
Because there are many ways that one can help depending on the context, I’ll be writing a few different posts about what it means to be my ally. This first post will deal with having my actions policed during the playing of the national anthem, and actions you can take at these moments as my ally.
Colin Kaepernick first sat, then began to kneel, during the playing of the national anthem in 2016. When asked why, he stated “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color… To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
In case it’s not crystal clear to everyone, the kneeling was about police brutality against Black people and people of color. If someone wants to turn it into something else, that’s on them. In fact, that’s the first place you can be my ally. Correct them! They may ‘feel’ it’s disrespectful, but their feelings aren’t the point.
Unlike Kaepernick, I don’t kneel when the anthem is played. To be honest, I try to not be present in public areas when it’s played. If I do get caught in front of spectators I stop what I’m doing, face the flag, leave my cap on and hold my hands behind my back.
While the anthem* plays, I stare at the flag and think of all the ways I love my country in spite of the fact that my life as a Black man is given so little value. I love my country dearly; so much so that I try to make my corner of it a little better each day, knowing full well that I can be in the wrong place at the wrong time and die because of the color of my skin.
*Anthem side note – The song that most know as our national anthem is only the first verse. The third verse reveals the darkness in Key’s heart when he extols his wish for death upon the freed Blacks who helped to fight against his young country (Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave. From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave!).
With that in mind, let’s go back to the scene of me trying to cope when stuck in a public space, desperately trying to keep my focus on love of country. That’s where the policing begins.
At one event, a white female colleague tried to remove my cap while telling me, “You need to take off your cap”. I stopped her and said, “You need to not tell me what I need to be doing.” On another occasion, a white male colleague came up to me as the anthem started and said, “Are you going to take off your cap?” I looked at him and said, “At least I’m not kneeling…”
This scenario has played out more than a few times, and in much the same way. Anthem starts, I stand respectfully, and a white colleague will come up and attempt to police the manner in which I’m forced to show patriotism for a country that shows contempt for me.
Here are the takeaway actions for Part 1: The Anthem. If you want to be my ally, please don’t attempt to police my actions during the anthem. If you see someone questioning/maligning my actions, stand up for my choice EVEN IF you may not agree. Lastly, if you have a question about what you see, ask me and we can talk. I don’t mind talking about it as long as there is respect shown on both sides.
Two years ago, I had an encouraging conversation with a colleague about the anthem. When the subject of kneeling came up, he repeated the standard response about ‘how disrespectful it was’ until I immediately stopped and educated him about the full version. He came back later and apologized, admitting that he’d never been taught about the rest of the song.
Neither was I. NOBODY IS. When celebrating whiteness is the point, why would we be taught anything else? I now understand why there is a Black national anthem (Lift Every Voice And Sing, written in 1900) and why it was taught at my elementary school in Cleveland. My elders wanted to give us young Black children something to feel pride in that included me in its vision, not one that wished me dead.
There’s a fairly large number of Black men and women in my line of work. Some may hold very different points of view from me regarding the anthem, particularly those who’ve served in the military. We’re certainly not a monolith. But I can tell you that we’ve all put a lot of thought into the issue of the anthem. We’ve had to.
As my ally, hopefully you’ll now do so as well.