On Bended Knee

On Bended Knee

“…I, _____, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.”
– Excerpt from the Oath of Commissioned Officers (US Military)

Dear Colin Kaepernick,

You may kneel during the Star Spangled Banner.

I will continue to stand for your right to do so. And to protect you, the stadium, and the soil upon which you are kneeling.
You are well within your (constitutional) rights to kneel, sit, spit, turn your back, and/or walk away as our flag is raised. Or to burn it, if you so choose.
I will continue to stand under that flag, supporting and defending your freedoms of speech and assembly (whether or not I happen to actually agree with what is being said or who is assembling).
Whether you were pro-MLK or pro-KKK, I would protect your right to peacefully protest (or counterprotest)– with pride and without prejudice.
I solemnly affirm that I would give my life for your way of life. For the American way of life that fully allows us to fully disavow it – and each other, if we choose.
For the process of America – good, bad, ugly, and otherwise.
I pledge allegiance to the process.
To the America conversation.

For the record, I am Black (proudly so).
For we who are African-Americans, the banner feels sometimes as star-crossed as it is Star Spangled.
Complicated, at best. Serrated, at worst.
The Middle Passage. 246 years of American slavery. Jim Crow. Systemic and structural oppression. Police brutality. Domestic terror. Assassinations. Mass incarceration.
What sometimes feels like attempted (mass) murder.

And to this Republic (for which the flag stands). One nation – a yellow brick road paved largely upon the whiplashed backs of enslaved Blacks.
Killing in the name of (God). “Invisible” men – and women.
With liberty and justice for some – sometimes.
Yet out of this one (against all odds) have emerged a gentle angry many – working both inside and outside the system for change. Freely taking the obligation to hold America to its word (the Constitution) – even as half of its signers were slaveowners.
And to its Bill of Rights (however past due).
No evasion.
Raging – but engaging in the conversation.

Althea. Baldwin. Cornel. DuBois. Ellington. Frederick. Giovanni. Holiday. Ida. Jackie. King. Lorde. Muhammad. Newton. Obama. Powell. Quarles. Rustin. Simone. Thurgood. Unson. Viola. Walker. X. Young. Zora.

For the record, I am also military (proudly so).
But not blindly.
For every World War II, there has been a Wounded Knee. For every Berlin wall, an Alamo. Peaceful protests preserved, as well as crushed with an iron fist.
The uniform I wear is complicated at best – even as a chaplain (a noncombatant).
But I serve nonetheless.
Actively engaging in the process of America. I am at the table to have the tough conversations. To help commanders charged with enforcing the Constitution to remember the soul of it. To keep them honest – and protect them from themselves. From becoming domestic enemies. And creating foreign ones.
Helping to shape policy – and serve the spirits of the servicemembers that carry out those policies.
I support and defend with eyes wide open.  Full awareness of both the justice and injustices done by our armed forces. And a heart wide open to facilitate an open-ended (and conscience-laden) conversation.
I am raging inside the machine.

I invite you to think of the flag (and the anthem) as more of a conversation than a statement.
An imperfect but inspired process – in progress.
I welcome you to consider the Constitution as a concept.
As complicated as any other script – or scripture.
A living document, very much open to interpretation.
Prophetic. Flawed (but not fatally).

At the moment – for many – you are public enemy number one.
A domestic enemy of the State.
For me, you are my brother Colin. Raging against the machine, with righteous intentions. Making a state-ment.
And I hear/see/feel you.
It bothers me some that you didn’t stand for the anthem – but this is your right.
It bothers me much more that you didn’t vote.
Because this is your responsibility.

Our African-American ancestors went through hell on earth for your voting rights.
Many devoted their lives to it. Lost their lives for it.
Kneeling involuntarily – under attacks by blood-thirsty dogs, nightsticks, bats, fire hoses, and gunfire. Rogue police. And ‘National Guardsmen’, ironically.

They were burned.
Pummeled. Lynched by angry (not gentle) mobs. Stabbed.
Pistol -whipped. Shot in the back. Left for dead.
They offered themselves to be crucified so that we could stand in the voting booth, and be part of the conversation (however one-sided it may seem in the moment).
So that we could do more than make statements.

They looked the domestic enemy of bigotry dead in the eye. Breaking color lines (while others were trying to break their backs) to pave the way for you to play ball. For your process.
I wish that you had stood in that booth for them – and not suppressed yourself.
Stood up to be counted.
There were plenty of other (more locally relevant and urgent) things for you to vote on other than the presidency. This neighborhood jobs project. That community center. This county re-districting. That citywide literacy initiative.
I wish you’d taken your place at the table (your reservation) for that conversation.

Please rise for the playing of the national anthem.
If not for me –  then for the cloud of witnesses that came before you and me. In remembrance of their fight for your rights. To affirm that their Black lives mattered – and did not vanish in vain.
Don’t evade them.
Evoke them.
Engage.

I welcome you to place your hand over your heart.
For all our women and men stateside & overseas (in harm’s way), protecting your way of life. Defending the ‘us’ (U.S.) conversation.
Standing for your right to disagree with everything you may interpret the flag on their right shoulder to stand for.
Protecting your constitutional right to ‘petition your government for a redress of grievances’. And your right to free speech, assembly, and press.
Ironically, we are also protecting these very same freedoms for souls at the highest levels of our government (no matter how recklessly and inhumanely those freedoms are being expressed in any given moment).

Please stand for us.
Particularly for the many African-Americans serving proudly in military and police uniforms –standing for you. Helping to change the nation’s conversation from the inside out.
You don’t have to sing along, if you don’t want to (you have the right to remain silent).
Many in other nations would die (and are dying) fighting to gain a fraction of your freedoms. Some would kill for your rights – or kill you because of your rights.
But not on our watch.
(You’re welcome).

You had the right to say that you’d feel like a ‘hypocrite’ if you voted. And then to wear a Fidel Castro t-shirt to a press conference. And have many enraged Cuban-Americans exercise their right to call you a hypocrite.
And even that was a conversation. Peaceful.
Supported and defended by officers (both police and military) – peacefully.
That, for me, is America as it should be.

I dare not forget that I was 28 once.
I said some things then that look very different now, through my 38 year old prism. Very glad I didn’t say them on a public stage – in the era of social media and the 24 hour news cycle.
Nevertheless, they were part of my process.
I am obliged to support and defend your process. Freely standing for your freedoms, and your place at the table (even if you choose not to sit). Or you’d rather stand.  Or kneel.
I’ll bear true faith and allegiance to the America conversation.
Without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion – and with love.
So help me God.

Will you help me, Colin?

E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one),
Anthony

6 Comments

  1. Carla Gates

    O.M.GODDESS!! yep. You did it again. Thank you, Anthony. I stand for the National Anthem, but understand why others might choose differently. I am OK as long as there is peace.

  2. Ken Stevens

    Although I don’t totally agree, a great piece of writing, Anthony. I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote about voting or abstaining from doing so. I believe that neither this pro football player nor anyone else who fails to vote should have any right to expect those of us who do vote to listen to any complaints they may express about governmental policies after an election. By voting, they (or we) can have a chance to affect those policies. By not voting, they have abandoned their right to be critical about whatever follows. Indeed, real heroes put their life on the line (and some lost their lives) in demanding the right to vote for all. However, with regard to flag rituals and the like (which I see as an attempt to require conformity as to patriotism and/or religion), I don’t wholly agree. Indeed, the rebel in me is such that I make it a point to be out of the room if I know that patriotic and/or religious rituals are about to occur. Otherwise, I will remain silent and non-participatory. So I don’t care at all that others (public figures or not) may deviate in a non-violent way from what the general public wants them to do in that regard. The First Amendment, as I read it, should protect any of us in our non-violent non-conformity.

  3. Jim Gold

    Thank you, Anthony, for the many interesting points you raise in this reflection.

    I had not previously heard about the Fidel Castro t-shirt incident. It’s worth noting that the t-shirt Kaepernick wore was an image of a meeting between Castro and Malcolm X in Harlem in 1960. Here’s a link with a discussion of Kaepernick’s remarks about why he wore that shirt.

    https://thinkprogress.org/colin-kaepernick-castro-comments-a8d13759a1af/

    I think it is worth considering whether people of conscience should support an institution (the NFL) in which the evidence strongly suggests that Kaerpernick is being denied a job because he had the audacity to express his political opinions, rather than based on an honest assessment of his abilities.

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