Of Symbolism, Ritualism, Cowardice and Hard Truths

Now I know the birthday of a nation
Is a time when a country celebrates
But as your hand touches your heart
Remember we all played a part 
In America to help that banner wave

  • Stevie Wonder, Black Man 1976

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What thoughts do you have as you view these symbols?  For some these symbols either represent or remind them of their faith in god and country.  For others these represent institutions of hatred and oppression.  For me, they represent all of these; faith, god, country, hatred and oppression.  They also represent neither.  The meanings of symbols and the meanings thereof are strictly up to the person interpreting them.  As people, we interpret symbols through the lenses of how we are raised, our learned experiences or how we have evolved.  By nature I am sentimental but I hardly hold on to what I deem are empty traditions.  I am an American.  But I didn’t have the choice of being an American.  I was born here.  I see from a distance some of the advantages I have from people in some other countries.  But my experiences and knowledge are limited, unlike, for example a first generation immigrant.  I can’t say America is the best country in the world.  Because ‘best’ is subjective depending on a person’s needs.  ‘Home’ is home for most people in the world.  Most people have conflicted feelings about their homes.

I served in the military, but I didn’t have a particular affection for the flag.  I grew close to a few of the people I served with.  I was a Christian, but I didn’t love the cross or the bible as a symbol.  I loved what I believed they stood for according to my faith.  I admit that I’ve had my superstitions.  Back in the day I would never put a glass or anything else on top of my bible.  There was something in me that felt it wasn’t right.  I’ve learned in time this was my hangup.  Experience has taught me a few things about symbols.

The flag, whether decorated with stars and stripes or crossbones and skull in an inanimate object.  The bible is a book.  It’s people who bring value and significance to things.  Not the other way around.  What the American flag and the Holy Bible represent to each person they encounter will be determined by the representatives who carry and present them.

I cannot speak for other nations, but Americans are really into symbols and rituals. However, far too many have little interest in an authentic manifestation of what they say the symbols stand for.  Take Colin Kaepernick and his decision to sit for the Star Spangled Banner. He expressed a grievance that has long been expressed by African-Americans as well as many other minorities in this country.  He desires that America as a whole live up to the ideas that she claim for all of it’s citizens. But Americans, are using the flag (the symbol) as a shield to cover over the subject matter Kaepernick described when asked why he sat.  Clearly, his critics don’t want to recognize Kaepernick’s grievances or even entertain a serious discussion about them.

I think ESPN’s Stan Verrett spoke for most Americans who happen to be woke, Black Americans in particular.

“I’ve always stood for the anthem because I believe in the promise of America, what the flag is supposed to symbolize even though America often falls short of what it’s supposed to symbolize. I mean, my dad served in the Army, dealt with discrimination in the Army, came back from his service in World War II and was not afforded the same rights as a U.S. citizen after his service, so don’t talk to me about sacrifice and the military. My mom was the valedictorian of her high school, couldn’t go to college in Louisiana and other mainstream universities because they were segregated. They didn’t want to hear about her grades. You can’t go because you’re black. “There’s still (discriminatory) problems in housing, hiring, the justice system. These are real problems. People aren’t making this up and they’re trying to find ways to speak out about it. You’re not always going to agree with the method. But let’s pay as much attention to the substance as we do to the symbol.”

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*Is burning this jersey (a recent ritual against scorned black athletes) any different that burning this cross?

Unfortunately, many of the loudest detractors of critical thought, nuance and self examination are fixated on the symbolism.  In the case of ‘patriotism’ they love the worship of the flag and the ritual of standing for the anthem.  They love the idea of what the veteran does to protect their rights to be self absorbed while enjoying a false sense of exceptionalism.  They aren’t willing to give two damns or one f#@! for veteran returning to the United States traumatized with PTSD.  They don’t invest in the welfare of military spouses and families left here when soldiers are deployed, wounded or killed in action.  They aren’t even the least bit put off about how the NFL charged the United States Military millions of dollars putting on tributes in stadiums during football games.

But they sure are mad as hell at a man who peacefully sits down for 90 seconds of the anthem.  They burn his jersey in effigy.  They tell him to leave the country.  They use his income as an excuse to condemn him to silence; as if money is an elixir to racism.  The ignore poor and middle class people who share the same griefs that Kaepernick is talking about.  So the question has to be asked: Is patriotism really the issue here? Or is there something else more sinister at play?

Images and rituals are useful when they serve as a reminder or an inspiration; when they celebrate ideas of hope, service, strength, and compassion, or a solemn recognition of memorial.  However, whats most important is that these images, symbols and rituals remain what they are, reminders. And that we the people with the power to make the meaning of our symbols a reality do so.  Without substance, we (and by ‘we’ I mean they or you if it applies) are liars, rattlesnakes pretending to be eagles!  This fact is easily verifiable when one acts as if not standing for the anthem is treason while ignoring the reasons a man chooses not to stand.

Finally I will echo the words of San Francisco Chronicle Columnist, Ann Killion,  …the truth is, standing for the national anthem before a sporting event is an equally empty gesture for many people. Though many are reverent during the anthem and think of their freedom and those who have died for our rights, just as many are buying a beer, daydreaming or looking at their phones. Raising their butts off the seat doesn’t make them better Americans than Kaepernick.

She continued,  …To those who say he “should” be grateful, and that he has a good life, take a look at the racist comments posted on his Instagram account. They’ve been there for years, long before this controversy. He has plenty of reason to be concerned about what’s happening in our country.

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I say, the fact that many are still holding on to their patriotic bumper sticker phrases, despite the many veterans who have come to Kaepernick’s defense, (#VeteransForKaepernick) your stance merely reveals your nationalistic narcissism!  You can’t hide in plain sight.  We see you naked and inept.  When former Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial, we have always been and we — I believe continue to be in too many ways essentially a nation of cowards, he was talking about you, oh “patriotic” one.

The Evolution of Me and Francis Scott Key

 

It’s never been a mystery to me that we live in two different Americas.  One for black people and the other for white.  That didn’t stop with the passage of the civil rights bill of 1964.  Whether it’s the criminal justice system, the rate of poverty, educational inequities, political conflicts, etc., we still have not been a nation united across the board.   

Starting in the late 80’s I made a decision that I would do something to show my displeasure.  In a subtle but defiant act, I decided that I would no longer stand for the Star Spangled Banner (aka The National Anthem) when it’s played publicly.  My thinking was that as long as my people are oppressed in this country, I would not stand along side, hand over heart giving reverence to their theme song.  If a game were on TV, I would turn the channel during the playing of the anthem.  Sometimes I would be at a sporting event, and if it was for instance a basketball tournament on Martin Luther King Day, they would play The Banner and James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the so called Negro National Anthem.  (And a most beautiful and majestic song may I add.)  In that case I would stand for only the latter, and sit immediately afterwards.  It never bothered me in the least nor made me uncomfortable when I would get stares or dismissive mugs from others.  I figured what the heck.   I wasn’t disrespecting anyone else nor making any noise.  I simply sat silently and waited for it to pass.  This was my personal protest.  This was my Tommie Smith gesture and I offered it unapologetically.

I talked about how the election of Barack Obama to the presidency has inspired me to do more to contribute to my country.  A close friend and I had a conversation yesterday where we talked about how inspired we were to improve ourselves and our surroundings.  He said, “Every American, black, white, brown, whatever has a responsibility to better themselves and their community.   I don’t care if you take a class, get a GED or whatever.  You need to do something to step your game up!”  I totally agreed and told him of how I was inspired to blog about that very subject for a week.  I have always done things to better my world.  But I felt isolated still.  I felt my influence would only go so far as the world at large with it’s political machine both locally and nationally was against most of what I stood for.  My loyalty only extended so far to the country as a whole.  Because I saw how arrogant we were and how horribly we treat the poor, the sick, children, the elderly, and more recently the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  I always noticed the hypocrisy in which we talked one thing to other nations about democracy and yet stole elections right here at home.  So though I always acknowledged that America was a nation with great benefits, a nation where a lot is possible and in some cases more so than other parts of the planet, still I could not give her the free pass that many often do.  In other words, I always knew I was a patriot, but never a nationalist. 

With the presidency of Barack Obama, I sense an elevation in my patriotism.  There is a difference in what I see in terms of possibilities.  The difference is now that I feel as if someone is actually on my team.   I don’t mean the team of the black man.  I mean the team of justice and righteousness.  The team of telling the truth and doing what one says.  I sense that my president is actually on the side of what is right and that I am included in the America that he envisions.  I feel as if my children’s futures are included as well. 

In President Obama I see a man.  A family man who loves his wife and daughters whom I know he would protect to the death.  I see an admiration and respect in the eyes of his wife.  I see a man who sees the office of the presidency as a mission to help make things right and follow through on what he campaigned.  On the first day in office he freezes the salaries of his top aides who make over $100,000, saying that Americans are tightening their belts and so should Washington.  He puts limitations on their dealings with lobbyist.  He pens documents to close Gitmo within a year pending finding a place for some disgruntled so called enemy combatants.  I mean this cat is SERIOUS and I can feel the sense of urgency to not only set policy but to set the example.  I see a man of style and grace, of strength from within not flaunting it like a sword but indeed at least offering a hand first.  I see President Obama as not only being the President of the United States, but being MY president too.  And since he is my president, I am going to let him do his job, as I look to do mine.  I don’t expect him to change my life, only enhance my opportunities.  Changing my life is up to me.  To help change my community is up to me.

So in addition to all the things I have decided to do to help make my country better – I have included in that the symbolic gesture of once again standing for the Star Spangled Banner. 

This is my investment of hope into mainstream America with its vanities and prejudices.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still know full and well that there are many haters out there for the cause of what is right.  There are still injustices happening everyday.  There is still a ton of work to do on the national and local levels of government and society and I will continue to fight vigorously against tyranny.  (I honestly think it’s silly to play the thing before every sporting event anyway.)  This is a tradition that was started in WWII.  Still I feel a sense of renewal and inclusion and as I embrace my president, I embrace the America that he is attempting to erect as again the greatest nation for possibilities in the world – more righteous than ever before.   Oh believe me, this symbolic gesture is a huge emotional investment for me just as it has been for the last 20 years on the opposite end. 

“Or the land of the free? ”  Oh yea, I’m seeing that for me.   

Lift Every Voice and Sing – indeed.