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

fc8a3eb0-400c-44d9-9378-d95b7a2e94acCross-PB-Small-500x500-500x500

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.”

KaepBurn.0.0burning+cross

*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.

CrPBt6fVUAAEFoY

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.

Advertisements

A Gathering of Church Brethren, Or My Richard Sherman Moment

Richard Sherman’s  NFC Championship game saving play and immediate reaction during his post game interview has spurned a lot of discussion.  The reaction, mostly negative seem to come from two separate parties:  One that is shocked that the gladiator leaving the field of gridiron battle was not calm and composed immediately after making the play of his life.  The second was a selective set of white folks viewing him as a black out of control mandingo ready to devour every white woman in the Emerald City.

I thought the interview with Erin Andrews was awesome!  His raw and unapologetic rant, the result of the competing for the ultimate prize in his sport against a heated rival made me feel as if I was on the field.  While others found it difficult to understand, I resonated being totally invested in stiff competition with personal feelings at stake.  I thought of my own Richard Sherman moments.

One that I will never forget happened years ago playing basketball with some brothers from a church I attended.  We met every Saturday afternoon at a local community center.  The competition was pretty good and the name of the game was to win and stay on the court.  These games often were personal to me because we had rivalries among the brethren.  That was the way I felt anyway…

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Growing up I wasn’t a basketball player.  Baseball was my sport.  I taught myself how to play through battling against some of the toughest players the area.  I thrived on effort and intuition.  I did whatever it took to win and it didn’t matter if I felt I had to score all of the points or none.  All I cared about was winning or competing at my highest level with no regrets.  I wasn’t that guy who tried to “Be Like Mike.”  For me it was about not cheating myself from within.  Basketball was just a game, but competing in the right way meant that anything less than an all out effort was selling myself short.  If I didn’t stand up for myself I believed I would be punking out.   In those years I was still learning how to be a man.  Part of my personal rights of passage was to match myself up against other men in competition.   Simply put, I believed that if I can play this game and beat guys who were often times better than me skill wise or more athletically inclined, that meant I could compete in life in the career market and otherwise.  It was a self test of survival.

I wasn’t a great player but I could hold my own and I often did.  I gained a lot of respect among my peers.  For some reason, not with some of these guys I played with from church.  I would often get picked last below players whom I knew I was better than. Sometimes I wouldn’t get picked at all.  That would burn me up.  Once captains were chosen, I would throw my finger up asking one of the guys to pick me up.  Sometimes no one did.  I would have to wait and get ‘next.’  That would burn me up even more!

This one particular day I was one of the last picked up.  One of the players on the other team was one of the better players.  He had never picked me on his side.  So once again, I created a chip  boulder on my shoulder that said, “You are going to regret that you didn’t pick me…. ALL FREAKING DAY LONG.”

As custom, we gathered to pray first and play began.  As the games went on my team collected a few wins.  We took on all challengers and different team combinations from game to game.  There was trash talking, and more than a few arguments.  Towards the end of the evening, after winning 6 straight games I was ready to shut it down.  For years I had struggled with a sharp shooting pain down my right leg, which I found out later was sciatic nerve pain from a herniated disk in my back.  At this point I had a hard time walking.  One of the players on the other team wanted one more rematch.  Marjobo and I went to school together so we went way back.  He had been talking trash to me all day long though I was sticking it in his ass.  He was especially irritating and was relentlessly non stop with his rants and name calling.

Sizin'en Up

I have never been the trash talker many guys are.  I always believed the biggest competition was with myself.  I’ve gotten my ass handed to me by some great players.  And I’ve done my share of winning.  But I had no sorrows if I knew I gave it my all against them.  My never quit no excuses attitude is how I got my respect.  On the flip side, guys who talked trash to me often took me to a deeper level of intensity.  My friend Richard Dix knows this all too well.  We played one on one often.  On most occasions the results went about 50-50.  Richard was long, athletic and could jump.  But, Richard’s downfall was his pride.  If he were winning, he had to let me know about it.  He would talk, laugh and say stupid things.  From then on I would start into another gear.  As I would pile on the points he would say something like, “Oh boy, I see you done got quiet.  Here we go!”   I would be in an assassin’s mentality. Richard called it my, “You ain’t my friend no more mode.”  Either way, I don’t think he ever beat me when I was in that state of mind.

I told Marjobo my leg was bothering me.  I needed to sit it out.  He egged me on saying I was a scared punk who didn’t want him to beat me.  After a few minutes I said to myself, “F’it… let’s go!”

The two teams went at if for about 20-25 minutes.  Back and forth the score went.  Game was to 12 but it was win by 2.  Richard was there but he was watching.  Basketball never meant that much to him.  After a couple games, he was just hanging with the brothers.  He was entertained by the drama.  Marjobo was talking and talking.  I never said a word.  Dragging my leg around I did everything I could to rebound and play defense.  Finally we went up 16-15 with one basket to go for game time.  I received a pass on a cut to the paint, went up for the shot and as the ball went through the basket, my inner Richard Sherman came through in front of all these dudes I went to church and worshipped with every Sunday as I screamed at the top of my lungs:

GET YO MOTHERFU#@$! ASSES OFF MY GOTDAMN COURT!  THIS IS MY MOTHERFU#@$! HOUSE!   BUSTA ASS NI@@AS CAN’T F#@! WITH ME!!!!!!!!  NOW DON’T SAY SH#! ELSE!!!!  ALL YA’LL DISMISSED!!!

There was total silence in the gym, except for Richard who was on the floor rolling around laughing.  He said, “I told ya’ll.  Don’t say nothing to that dude.  Just play and leave him alone!”  I’m sure the other guys were thinking, “I knew he wasn’t saved!”

I can tell you over 10 years later that my response was totally unplanned and 100% organic.  It didn’t matter.  My mother, my kids, the pastor or anybody could have been there at the time.  I was mentally out of my mind with a euphoric satisfaction that was probably something like being high on crack for the first time.  My reaction wasn’t who I was on a day to day basis.  But it was within me.  I was a conquering warrior for that moment.   When I went home I could barely move the pain was so horrific.  I had an MRI and had the first of two back surgeries less than two weeks later.  For all of the days I suffered waiting on the surgery, as I reflected back I said to myself every single time it was all worth it.  I was just a guy playing some rec ball.  This wasn’t my career or my life’s dream.  What do you think it was like for Richard Sherman?

Marjobo

**Marjobo Harrell who was named after Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, and Bobby Kennedy (Mar- Jo- bo) was a St. Louis Firefighter who died tragically in a motor cycle accident.  He really was an awesome guy!  Much love and rest in peace brother!