All readers who know me personally know that I’m not exactly a sports-guy. I occasionally follow baseball, although always from a safe distance and rarely in person at an actual game. I’ve attended exactly one NHL game in my life and one NBA game. I’ve never been to a professional football game and, no, I hadn’t ever heard of Colin Kaepernick until two weeks ago. But I’ve heard of him now!
For readers even more clueless than myself when it comes to professional sports, Colin Kaepernick, age 28, is a quarterback who plays for the San Francisco 49ers. He is, by all accounts, a remarkably good player and a true asset to his team. For people who do not follow football, however, he came to prominence only a few weeks ago when, before a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers at the end of August, he pointedly and publicly declined to join his teammates in standing up during the playing of the National Anthem. During a subsequent interview, he explained his decision to remain seated as a matter of principle and an expression of his reluctance to show pride in a nation that, to use his own words, “oppresses black people and people of color.” Furthermore, he commented that, in his opinion, it would be an act of personal selfishness to garner the respect of onlookers by appearing to respect the flag when, again to quote his exactly words, “there are bodies in the street and people…[are] getting away with murder.”
Then, in the 49ers final pre-season game on September 1, Kaepernick modified his protest gesture and, instead of remaining seated, instead knelt down during the playing of the national anthem. This, he subsequently explained, was his way of continuing his protest while at the same time showing respect to former and current members of our Armed Forces.
As could certainly have been anticipated, Kaepernick’s behavior was vocally lauded in some circles and just as loudly deplored in others. Some few other professional athletes have followed suit both as a way of expressing support for his gesture and, presumably, because they feel the same way about the state of the nation. The National Football League responded to the incident by issuing a bland statement noting that players are only encouraged to stand for the national anthem, but not specifically required to do so. For their part, the 49ers’ management weighed in with a more pointed statement that, by begrudgingly recognizing the right of any individual player to choose whether or not to “honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens” by standing during the anthem, somehow managed to be supportive and insulting at the same time. It didn’t take long for Kaepernick’s behavior to turn into a national cause célèbre with people of all sorts and with no ties to professional sports quickly taking sides and expressing themselves, some very aggressively, one way or the other.
One interesting argument put forward has to do with the national anthem itself, the Star-Spangled Banner. For most of us, it’s a thing, a relic, a hymn…something that has always been there and presumably always will be part of our national culture. We learned it, or at least its first stanza, when we were children. It’s notoriously difficult to sing, but at P.S. 3 we did our best to sing it out with gusto as the opening part of our weekly schoolwide assemblies. I don’t recall learning much about its history. I’m sure I didn’t understand what it was all about. I liked the part about America being the land of the free and the home of the brave, but the rest of it was, to say the least, obscure. I’m sure I had no idea who exactly the “we” in the song were who watched the stars and stripes gallantly streaming o’er the ramparts. I’m not entirely sure I even knew what ramparts were back then, let alone which specific ramparts we were singing about the flag flying o’er.
Later, I filled in the details on my own. Francis Scott Key was thirty-five years old when, on September 14, 1814, he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by the British navy. Watching through the night to see if the flag was yet flying o’er the fort, Key was so inspired when, by dawn’s early light, he saw the same flag he had noticed in the last gleaming of the previous evening’s twilight still proudly flying over the fort that he was moved to song. Or at least to poetry. Key himself called his poem “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” but once it was set to a then-popular tune the song became widely known instead as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It became a popular patriotic hymn instantly, but slightly surprisingly—to me, at any rate—was only made our national anthem 117 years later by a resolution of Congress on March 3, 1931, which was subsequently signed into law by President Hoover.
At P.S. 3, we only sang the first verse. Nobody ever sings anything but the first verse. That, it turns out is all for the best, because later on the song takes a decidedly racist turn. Possibly. The background for that part of the poem has to do with the success the British had during the War of 1812 (which lasted until 1815 and of which the Battle of Baltimore was a prominent part) in recruiting American slaves to fight on their side by promising them their freedom in the wake of a British victory. These escaped slaves became the “Colonial Marines,” which regiment helped the British win the Battle of Bladensburg on August, 24, 1814, the victory that led directly to the occupation of Washington and the torching of the White House later that same day.
And it was possibly with reference to those slaves that Francis Scott Key wrote the now-infamous third stanza of his poem in which he wrote, slightly obscurely, that “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.”
There are a dozen different ways to interpret those lines. Some take the “slaves” in question to be the British themselves, who—unlike the Americans—were still ruled over by a despotic monarch. Others imagine the lines to be referencing American sailors seized by the British and impressed into service as seamen in the Royal Navy. But, as far as I can see, most take the reference to be precisely to those American slaves who, disgusted with their lot in a slavery-tolerant United States, saw their best hope for freedom to lie with fighting for the British. That white America was not amused goes without saying. That Francis Scott Key, who was present for the Battle of Bladensburg as a volunteer aide, was enraged at the sight of escaped slaves fighting for his nation’s enemy, ditto: the burning of the White House shook Americans’ sense of their own security and the ability of their government to defend its own institutions, and was in its day probably no less traumatic than the attack against the Pentagon on 9/11 in terms of the degree to which it made the citizenry feel vulnerable and nervous. That slaves didn’t feel the same level of patriotism in their bones that their masters did hardly needs to be justified. But that we don’t actually ever sing that third verse, or any of the song other than its first stanza, is also key: those lines may be regrettable and, if they do reference the Colonial Marines, they certainly suggest a deplorable worldview in which a nation founded on the bedrock principle of the freedom of the individual somehow managed to tolerate slavery nonetheless. But, at the end of the day, no one—not anyone, really, other than historians and scholars—knows about any of this.
To argue that the national anthem, and I quote from an online essay I read just the other day, “literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans,” is so exaggerated a claim as to be essentially meaningless. (For those interested, click here to see that essay.) The War of 1812 was, in a sense, the true birth of our nation. Forgotten by most and confused by many with the Civil War (just ask yourself how many Americans can distinguish easily between the roles played by Fort Sumter and Fort McHenry in our nation’s history?), the War of 1812 signaled, not the birth, but the coming-of-age of our nation.
Independence had been achieved not even thirty years earlier when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. But, as we all know, being born is only the first step towards adulthood, towards maturity, towards “real” existence in the world of grown-ups. As children, we take our first steps, gather our wits about us, learn about the world. We grow into adolescence, test the boundaries, experiment with all sorts of possibilities…and then, at a certain moment, we step over the line into autonomy, into the state of personal freedom that characterizes true adulthood. And the same is true for nations. Becoming an independent American nation was a bloody, violent process. But once American independence was achieved, the next great question was what this newborn child would grow up actually to be. That, as with us all, was the great challenge facing our nascent nation at the dawn of the nineteenth century.
Things were not great. American trade was being inhibited by the British War with France. As many as 10,000 American sailors had been seized by the British and forced to serve in the Royal Navy. The British were actively fomenting armed revolt by native Americans on the western frontier. The time had clearly come for America to test its resolve to defend its own interests, to stand up for itself in the forum of nations, to insist that it be granted the rights of sovereign states. Finally, the people could take no more and, on June 18, 1812, President Madison signed a declaration of war already approved both by the House and the Senate. The battle was joined. The great American victories at Plattsburgh, Baltimore, and, eventually, New Orleans made victory inevitable. When the Treaty of Ghent was ratified by Congress on February 17, 1815, America’s place as a sovereign state, and as a force to be reckoned with, was secure.
And that brings me back to Colin Kaepernick. I can’t imagine that he had the Colonial Marines in mind when he chose to disrespect the national anthem as a way of giving voice to his concern for the plight of African-Americans, nor did he indicate even in passing that he did. A few years ago, I wrote to you about Justice Salim Joubran, an Israeli Arab justice of the Supreme Court in Israel, who created a huge brouhaha by declining to sing Hatikvah at a ceremony honoring one of the other Supreme Court justices on the occasion of her retirement from the bench. His disinclination to sing aloud the ode to Zionist principles that is his nation’s national anthem was just as widely condemned and lauded as Kaepernick’s parallel gesture all these years later. I wrote there (click here if you wish to read my comments for yourself) that I thought the whole matter was a tempest in a teapot, a huge amount of rancor generated by a simple act of personal courage.
Whether Justice Joubran should have allowed his allegiance to the State to trump his personal discomfort is a question I could cogently argue in both directions. And I feel the same way about Colin Kaepernick. His gesture was defiant and angry. He no doubt meant it to be both those things. But it’s important to take it for what it was, not what it wasn’t. It was a public way to attract attention to the cancer of unresolved racism gnawing at the underbelly of our national culture. It was not meant to insult the anthem or, I suspect, the nation for which it stands, one that, for all it may yet provide liberty and justice for all in precisely the same way, indubitably is already the land of the free and the home of the brave…including some brave enough to put their reputations and future earnings’ potential on the line for the sake of saying something challenging and provocative that fate has somehow granted them the audience and the framework to say powerfully and loudly.