The Correlation: Frederick Douglass, Colin Kaepernick, and Pamela Hunt

By: Pamela D. Hunt

I grappled with the meaning of taking the knee, pressure of the knee myself, internal struggles, and the true meaning of the anthem. Lee Siegel in “Why Kaepernick Takes the Knee” explains, taking a knee, a gesture now being adopted by a wave of professional athletes- you would think that it was a militant motion, full of anger and menace, akin to the Black Power salutes raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. But kneeling during the national anthem is a gesture of humility, not ominous ire.

Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against African- Americans. The gesture shows the pain and distress that African- Americans go through still in 2017. Siegel praised this gesture for “putting America in a more honest context – or ‘Star Spangled Banner’ dimly seen through the mists of deep injury. It is like flying an American flag upside down in a moment of emergency.” Yet no matter how much Kaepernick’s heartfelt gesture of self- surrender echoed so much human suffering, rebukers blinded by tunnel vision saw only an assault against the flag, fallen service comrades, and the national anthem.

Avl Selk told how the national anthem first started being played before games, how standing for the anthem began before the NFL existed, or this nineteenth century war song became the American anthem. A Red Sox third baseman and Navy veteran “immediately faced the flag and snapped to attention with a military salute” (ESPN). Other players and people in the arena followed suit. Mimicking one man’s response became tradition. Just as one man modeled standing, another modeled taking a knee. Frederick Douglass drew white boys’ attention to his plight as a slave in “Learning to Read and Write,” writing, “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” (102). In the same way, Kaepernick draws attention to racial injustices.

I also have fallen under the vise of whether to take a knee myself. At the start of the national anthem during a South Bend Cubs game, before the first chord hit the air, I noticed keen eyes placed directly on me. In that instance, I felt a loud sound of judgement, ridicule, voluminous hate, and overall bullying. Gone was the riptide of emotion that normally filled my spirit at the start of the anthem. Mixed feelings of love, despair, desolate abandonment, and a rush of utter unresolvedness Kaepernick and Douglass chose how to take their stands. Kaepernick- taking the knee, Douglass- literacy. Individual stands, complex and diversified resolves. This became a battle with my inner self.

Why offense over kneeling but no acknowledgement of his sitting protests? Only on August twenty-sixth was Kaepernick sitting met with a level of vitriol unseen by athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Even Donald Trump took shots at Kaepernick while campaigning. Kaepernick explained his protest didn’t reflect on the military, but mirrored the oppression of minorities. On August thirtieth, 2016, former Army Green Beret Boyer penned an open letter to Kaepernick expressing how Kaepernick’s sitting affected him. Kaepernick, longing to understand other perspectives on the matter, took Boyer’s words to heart.

I’m not judging you for standing up for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right. What you are doing takes courage, and I’d be lying if I said I knew what it was like to walk around in your shoes. I’ve never had to deal with prejudice because of the color of my skin, and for me to relate to what you’ve gone through is as ignorant as someone who’s never been in a combat zone telling me they understand what it’s like to go to war. Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it. (Boyer par. 1 1)

Boyer continued, “There are already plenty people fighting fire with fire, and it’s just not helping anyone or anything. I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem; I’ll be standing right there next to you.” Kaepernick reciprocated Boyer’s empathy by inviting Boyer to San Diego where they had a ninety-minute discussion, during which Boyer proposed that Kaepernick kneel instead of sitting.

Why kneel? In a military funeral, a soldier takes the flag off the casket, smartly folds thirteen times and presents it to the next of kin while kneeling. Kneeling for the flag would symbolize reverence – the ultimate sacrifice – while still allowing Kaepernick to peacefully protest the injustices he saw.

Does standing for the national anthem really show patriotism? The War of 1812 led slave owner Frances Scott Keys to pen a ballad about what he witnessed at the battle. The U.S. attempted to take Canada from the British Empire, but the U.S. underestimated the British. The British recruited American slaves in exchange for freedom, allowing them to overrun Washington D.C. Keys depicts these slaves in the anthem’s third verse. “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.” (Key 21-24). This verse, Key’s glee in the death of these recruits, is a celebration of the death of freed slaves. At the peace treaty of 1814, the US demanded the return of “property” – 6,000 slaves. Instead, the British took them to settle in Canada, where their descendants today are called “Merikins.”

Reflection on taking the knee and realization of the true meaning of the anthem have taught me all people deserve the dignity to make their own choices. Regardless of stances on Kaepernick or Douglass, my mirror reflected doing what’s right- right now.

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