For as long as I have remembered the most difficult thing about going to sporting events, participating about sports in high school and even just listening to the Red Sox on the radio has been the Star Spangled Banner. In fact, I would say my relationship to that little piece of civil religion has followed me my whole life. When I was a very young child, I was getting ready for nap time when an announcement came over the intercom at our school saying that we should all stand for the national anthem, and I did. Then when the song ended, we were told to put our hands over our heart as the whole school did the pledge of allegiance, which I did not know, my parents had never taught me. After telling my father about this he sat me down and talked to me about what those things meant. He told me in no uncertain terms that I should not stand, nor put my hand on my heart and that I most certainly should not pledge my allegiance to a flag. He told me that he and my mother wanted our family’s allegiance to be to God, to our fellow humans and not to a force which actively warred against both. I asked him what allegiance was, and he told me that in essence my allegiance was my soul, to pledge my allegiance was to pledge how would I would spend my life, what I would support and what I would allow to give me direction. God seemed like a decent thing to give my allegiance to if for no other reason that God had never to that point told me to do anything and I am awful at following directions. So I carried on as my father had told me, not standing when we went to Wolfpack hockey games, nor at Rock Cat games, not when I was yelled at by my fourth grade teacher and physically dragged out of the classroom, not when I was sent to the principal’s office by my eighth grade social studies teacher and spent the remainder of the year sitting outside the classroom during the announcements, not when I got into an argument with my sophomore year history teacher over 1st amendment rights and was sent from the classroom yet again, not when my wrestling coach gave me extra laps and push ups for making the team look bad, not even when my baseball coach told me that if I wanted to play America’s pastime I better love America. I have been called everything from traitor to terrorist by my peers, my friends, my fellow church members, my coaches, my teachers and even my relatives. These experiences made choosing my college very easy, the college I ended up attending had sparked national controversy the year before by declaring it would no longer play the national anthem before sporting events, and for the first time I could attend soccer games without getting awkward stares and angry glares for being the only one seated while the star spangled banner was sung.
It was while studying religion at this college that i began to research civil religion and the more I learned, the more I came to understand not only my position but the position of those who had hated me, argued with me and been hurt by me for my non-compliance. In America (and in many countries) we worship our country. We lay down our lives for this country, we take lives for this country, we see our country as a light in the dark world, we believe our country is beyond reproach, everywhere around us is the message of how important our country is, how it represents freedom and justice and equality, and in that light of course I seem like a malcontent for not pledging myself to that. However the more I learned about civil religion the more I became scared of it. The yawning void between what America is, and what we are told it is, is where I have grown up, and is all I have known. I grew up in the North End of Hartford, experiencing the segregation that while not enforced by laws is none the less present. Hartford is so segregated that even though I was “as Irish as Paddy's pig” as my dad liked to say, and had the skin and complexion to match, I was frequently asked by folks in the neighborhood who didn’t know me if I was Puerto Rican. This is because a Puerto Rican person looking like me, made more sense than a white kid growing up in the North End. Everytime I hear the words “Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave,O'er the land of the free, And the home of the brave?” I cannot help but scoff because in my experience the American flag does not wave over a land that fits that description. Is this really the land of the free when we have more incarcerated citizens than China, than anyone? Are we the home of the brave when we have been cowering before narratives of hatred and racism so deep that on any given weekday around 5 PM you can watch as hundreds if not thousands of white workers flee from Hartford to return home to gated communities and suburbs? That my best friend will have people cross the street when they see him, follow him around in stores and generally fear him with no knowledge about him based on the color of his skin? That we callously accept that any male over the age of 18 in the Middle East can and will be categorized as an enemy combatant to be killed by drone attacks. We live very far from such a land.
The national anthem we know is part of our civil religion it is the hymn with which we worship the idea of our country, and the values it extols are indeed noble, however they paint an incomplete picture. The country being sung about when this song was written, did not include black and brown people amongst those who could call the nation home. In fact the only time that the song does refer to black/brown people is in the often unheard third verse: “And where is that band who so vauntingly swore, That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion, A home and a Country should leave us no more?Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave. O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” According to Jason Johnson a writer for The Root who wrote on the racism of our national anthem this past summer, the verse is about the attacking the slaves who fought on the side of the British. A couple centuries ago when this song was written, racism was being built up as a cornerstone of American culture, and the evidence is here in the lyrics, these men would not free, not in the land that is being described here.
All of this brings me to this morning, when I picked up the Hartford Courant hoping to read about the Red Sox and instead found an article by Jeff Jacobs called “Kaepernick's Act Heartfelt, But Divisive.” Kaepernick’s decision to not stand for the anthem during NFL games has created a lot of op ed sports pieces about the role of nationalism in sports and vice versa, and Jacobs claims that Kaepernick is essentially, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, that what the song symbolizes is more powerful as a unifying force, and that Kaepernick’s decision is selfish and wrong footed. Luckily, Jacobs doesn’t assume he is the be all end all of the discussion and says “Maybe I'm missing something here, but Kaepernick missed that point. He went after the American symbol. He had to know he would alienate a huge segment of our society and create an instant backlash. In my mind, he went selfish, not selfless. Hey, look, at me! I'm not standing for "The Star-Spangled Banner." Right off the bat, that will inflame millions of Americans.” You’re right Jeff, you missed something. You missed the fact that this song was written at the same time that racist systems were being created that would destroy black and brown bodies and souls for centuries to come. Far from missing the point, Kaepernick is acknowledging that the anthem describes an America that is largely unavailable to black and brown Americans. The systems that enslaved Africans hundreds of years ago are not somehow separated from the systems that are allowing police to murder and assault black and brown Americans today. The narratives that white people created and recreated to perpetuate the destruction and enslavement black people are the same ones that white people are using to fight back a movement whose only point is to simply convince the country that the lives of innocent people should matter regardless of skin color. What Kaepernick is doing is simply saying that he can no longer worship at the altar of America, not while it soaked in the blood of black and brown bodies. I understand how awful this piece will sound to folks who are patriotic, folks who have put their lives on the line for the ideals of this country, who have made it part of their identity. Folks who have incorporated patriotism into their soul, as I have with my religion. My religion is also corrupted by power and wealth, my religion also has a long and terrible legacy of violence and destruction, and yet I live and pray by the ideals of my religion, and I know people who live and pray by the ideals of America. Those ideals however, should not and cannot prevent us from criticizing the legacies of our institutions, the violence of our institutions and work at repairing them.If we cannot examine them critically how will they ever live up to our ideals? Or maybe a better question: if we cannot examine ourselves critically, examine how our own biases and prejudices have helped perpetuate the violence in our institutions, how will we ever live up to our ideals?
Jason Johnson: "Star-Spangled Bigotry: The Hidden Racist History of the National Anthem"
Jeff Jacobs: “Kaepernick's Act Heartfelt, But Divisive.”