It’s the start of a new school year which always gets me thinking back to my years at Edward Devotion in Brookline, Mass.
Perhaps one of the most powerful moments of my life happened during a history course in the fourth grade.
I remember our teacher asking us to pull out our textbook to Chapter 4. Chapter Titled: Slavery.
I remember at that exact second as I turned to the page, seeing men and women who looked like me, naked, with chains around their necks and feet, lashes on their backs, babies crying in their mother’s arms as white, genial men pointed and gawked, something shifted, something “broke: within me: the moment I ceased being just a happy, 4th grader to someone who felt like God had pulled the rug from under me and leaned down to my ear to say, “you, and people like you are/were nothing. Animals. Cattel. On this soil. On this land.”
See, slaves aren’t just these people that occurred in history to me. They aren’t abstract – they are our family. They are our great great grandmother’s whose recipes we pass down generation after generation. Our great great great grandfather, son of his master, whose songs we still sing. They are just as much real as the immigrants whom we idolize and treasure, who passed Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on their way from Europe.
I have to think, for many children of color in this country, this is a recurring milestone. Like your first kiss, the first time behind the wheel, first missed curfew, so many of us remember this moment as clear as yesterday.
Perhaps this happens as well to my Japanese friends when they learn about the US internment camps of the 1940s or my Jewish loved ones when they first heard about the Holocaust (or how the United States was aware of the perpetuation of evil by the Third Reich). Your world at that moment becomes colored (no pun intended) in truths that make everything around you slightly tainted, slightly false.
Which is why I understand why Colin Kapernick and so many athletes are taking a knee, opting not to sing along or stand for the flag. After so many men and women have been gunned down by police over the past few years, after listening to the stories my father told me of his time in the military during the Korean War and the level of bigotry and discrimination he faced not from combatants but his own platoon, his own government, after seeing how cops in Boston went on a rampage, arresting every man of color they could find during the days of the Stewart murder, only to find the husband did it, and so many other moments in this country I have no space to write, I have to say I truly get it.
So, how do I then stand for a flag, or sing a song written by a slave owner, and be “proud” of my Americaness? For me, I stand for a flag and sing an anthem about an America that has not yet come to pass – one who lives up to its creed of equality for all men and women, an America at its ideal self, a future state. Trust me, every time I am confronted by the anthem, I have to reexamine exactly how I feel about it, about America, at that exact moment in time…and it is constantly fluctuating.
I live in a world now where I told my White husband as we traveled down South on vacation to Virginia not to stop until we got to the Chesapeake Bridge and to make sure he drove the speed limit. Not because of traffic safety, but because I worried with a black wife, mother in law and biracial child in tow, we might not make it home on a “routine stop” by an officer, or if we had to break down next to one of the many homes proudly displaying a confederate flag AND Trump poster on their front lawn.
We live in a world where I am being told by some of “you” who call yourselves “friends” that I “take these issues too close to heart” and that these things would never happen to “me” or my daughter. Seriously, what makes ME so special? And what protects those whom I love? Like my brothers, nephews, friends who are men of color? What about my sister-in-law, my aunts, my girlfriends? I can’t afford not to think of these themes if I want to protect them.
We also live in a world now where I am hearing, “don’t be so mean to those racists.” Yes, I have actually heard this from friends and family. “Have sympathy. Think of Dr. King” and turn the cheek. I am all for loving every human being, flawed and all, but you’re asking me to be “OK” and to not engage and not to inform and fight against bigotry or racism. There are two things here that bother me: 1. You apparently, like Jon Snow, know nothing about me. 2. When did being a bigot start getting a pass? When did we start patting racists, anti-Semites and homophobes on their heads and say, “there, there…one day you’ll learn…?” That is not how you educate. That is now how change happens or has happened in the past. You don’t condone poor behavior. You acknowledge it, you educate, you redirect, and you correct it.
If you think kneeling at a football game is “inappropriate” protest, or marching in the streets against violence is “inappropriate” protest, then you probably think this is too:
In short, if seeing people of color take a knee at a game, not place their hands on their hearts or sing along with you to the national anthem makes you uncomfortable, you’re not paying any attention to the message, you’re paying too much attention to the messenger.
Langston Hughes, one of the most prolific African-American poets of the 20th century, wrote everything I feel about America of yesterday, today and our future:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above. (It never was America to me.)...
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again... O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be...
Please read the entire poem here sometime and think of it often. Perhaps consider it as your friends of color stay seated or silent during the next raising of the flag or singing of the anthem.