O’er the Land of the Free…ish Colin Kaepernick’s Quintessentially American Protest

Colin Kaepernick (photo by Mike Morbeck)

Would you vow to recite and honor words you don’t understand, written by a man you never knew, without question, simply because someone told you it was your duty? If you said yes, that’s not surprising, because many people do. Whether the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem, many people proudly repeat familiar words to confirm their “patriotism” for America. In the eyes of many Americans, doing so confirms one’s dedication to the good old United States of America. So, naturally when one decides to sit out any of these activities, especially as publicly as Colin Kaepernick did, people take notice. And boy, do they get angry!

Over the past several weeks, at the opening of National Football League (NFL) games, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, has chosen to remain seated during the singing of the National Anthem in protest of what the song stands for. Most people would and did see Kaepernick’s decision as an unpatriotic and disrespectful display. But is it unpatriotic? Do the words in the National Anthem represent what America stands for today?

Let’s go to the source. “The Star Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 to honor the American victory at the battle of Fort McHenry. Our national mythology of this poem would suggest that the brilliant, young poet Francis Scott Key, his prideful gaze on the soaring American flag while enduring captivity aboard a Royal Navy ship, wrote this four-stanza love letter to the fearless and unyielding America, the land of the “free.” Sounds nice, except Key was kind of an asshole. Really. He was a pro-slavery aristocrat in Washington, D.C., and actively anti-abolition. He owned many slaves himself,  and, no, that wasn’t simply  “how things were back then.” Key held reprehensible prejudices against Black people, even insisting that free Black men and women be sent back to Africa. So if, as a white woman, I find Key’s anthem nauseating, I really shouldn’t have to explain why Colin Kaepernick, as a Black man, refuses to honor it.

What are the full words? Don’t worry, they’re right here!

After all of this, let’s say you still don’t agree with Kaepernick’s reasons for refusing to honor the National Anthem. Shouldn’t it be reason enough that he simply doesn’t have to? Yep, that’s right, you don’t have to stand up, you don’t have to place your hand over your heart, and you don’t have to quietly sing a 200 year-old song that is completely un-relatable to Americans today. (And that no one knows all the words to, anyway).

Many people only sing the anthem so that others don’t think they’re a “communist/socialist/terrorist/anti-American” or any number of other slurs thrown at individuals who opt out of the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. This stigma brings up another point—inflated ideas of patriotism and nationalism can turn to violence. The American Humanist Association’s David Niose summed this phenomenon up nicely in a recent Psychology Today article discussing forced loyalty:

All of this points to the need to recognize that ‘instilling patriotism’ is a political euphemism for manipulating public opinion, solidifying the authority of those in charge, and creating an environment that nurtures militarism and maximizes corporate profits, with little consideration of the resulting harm and destruction.

This entire concept of blind nationalism is everything humanism is not. Niose suggests that as humans, we have a natural inclination to group loyalty, no matter what the group, yet some individuals insist on forcing others to profess their loyalty in the way they see fit, a behavior strikingly similar to that of many religious individuals. Forced patriotism also completely disregards the whole point of being “proud to be and American” for our freedoms! Yes, it is a paradoxical concept.

In case you’re confused about the laws that require you to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem, I’ll give you a quick summary. There aren’t any. In fact, there is a constitutional amendment that protects your right NOT to say the Pledge of Allegiance: the First Amendment.

Maybe Kaepernick is not feeling a whole lot of national pride right now. He has expressed his anger about ongoing violence toward Black men and women, saying:

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.

So before you decide to add your Kaepernick jersey (now the top-selling jersey in the NFL) to the mountain of others being burned, remember that Kaepernick is exercising his rights as an American citizen to speak out against an activity that he finds harmful to an entire group of Americans. He is holding firm in what he believes, knowing there may be consequences and knowing he may face ridicule and prejudice, because he knows that his doing so is right for him and for many people—and isn’t that what America stands for?

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