I’m not sure if public schools still do this but I remember standing, hand over heart, reciting the pledge of allegiance before the start of class each day. During this period in my life, even in the midst of a crack epidemic that gripped my neighborhood in its jaws like a vise, I loved my country. The pledge of allegiance and the star spangled banner were both belted out at max volume when called to recite the former and sing the latter. Every founding father was shoved down my throat as a hero and I ate it up, Oliver Twisting my teachers to assign me extra credit when it came to American History, “Please sir, can I have some more?”
Then I grew up. And started reading other books that were not assigned to me by the state.
I learned about the horrors of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; I learned that in my country black Americans were not considered full-fledged people; I learned that many of my forefather heroes owned other human beings, even as they declared that all men were created equal. I continued to invest in my personal education and learned that 100 years after the end of slavery black people were lynched for daring to not be silenced; that four little girls can get murdered in a church because of the color of their skin; that a teenage boy named Emmett Till can be brutally tortured and then murdered for whistling at a white woman, then have his killers participate in a laughingstock of a trial that took the jury only an hour to deliberate, and then admit what they did by selling their story to Look magazine after they were acquitted.
Black children being murdered for no reason. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I did not watch the San Francisco 49ers third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers; the game in which Colin Kaepernick, back-up quarterback for the 49ers, was noticed by the media for sitting down while the rest of his coaches and teammates were standing for the national anthem. I did however read an excerpt of the interview after the game against Green Bay, where Kaepernick said…
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
I found myself nodding my head as I read his words, and I continued to agree with him when I YouTube’d his interview and heard his full statement. Modern day athletes are notorious for being noncommittal when it comes to political action. It was refreshing to see a young star — in his prime — speak up for what he saw as unjust treatment of minorities. I imagined he would receive some backlash but was totally unprepared for the vitriol that came Kaepernick’s way as he continued his protest. Social media, the cruel new master of people’s self-expression, was especially merciless. Anyone who even remotely expressed understanding for Kaepernick’s protest was digitally threatened and attacked. What really got to me were the countless people who used military members and veterans to score points, using service members as some type of trump card to amplify and win their argument. People love to bring up veterans when it is perceived that someone is disrespecting America. “He’s disrespecting veterans! How dare he do that to the troops! They sacrificed for his freedom.” Oh the humanity! I personally had no problem with Kaepernick’s protest. Neither has any veteran — no matter their race — I’ve talked to about this issue. I realized that to a certain population some things supersede patriotism. Maybe if the people foaming at the mouth about Kaepernick protesting took the time to think about what it’s like to be Black in America they would be more understanding and figure out a way to unite the county instead of promoting divisiveness.
I know that there are some people who will read this blog and want me castrated. They probably feel as if I hate my country and joined the Army in order to overthrow the government. Not true guys. Believe it or not, people can love their country and be critical of it at the same time. People can want this country to live up to its ideals while protesting the people and institutions they feel are holding it back. I believe Black Americans have a special relationship with this duality of life in America. Historian and sociologists W.E.B Du Bois described it best:
“One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
From personal experience it can be hell to have to exist with this “twoness” as a daily part of one’s life. As an American and a veteran, I honestly would like to feel the indignant anger that Kaepernick’s detractors feel. But I am also Black. The alienation that Black people feel due to their shared history of violence and discrimination in this country is what leads people like Kaepernick, and a slew of other Black American athletes that have followed him, to protest the anthem. It’s that dual nature that leads Black veterans like myself to applaud Kaepernick and admire his bravery. The sports stars protesting the fatal shootings of unarmed Black people have been galvanized to identify with the neighborhoods and people from which they come from. They know, like I know, that instead of Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice, it could have easily been them in the crosshairs of a firearm.
America puts race first. There is never a moment I am not aware of my race. How can Black people fully embrace this flag and this song given the bloody past history of this country? Given the contemporary history of this country? This is the same nation in which Black lives really don’t seem to matter. You can get killed by a cop on camera and your killer will not even be brought to trial. This is the same nation in which a known sexist and racist can be within reaching distance of the most powerful office in the world. This man’s campaign for the presidency has energized racism in the U.S. He has made people comfortable with hating. There is more racism in America than I have ever imagined, how can we criticize people who protest what is happening in this country. How can we not be part of the #veteransforkaepernick campaign? Veterans of all races and genders have used this hashtag to show solidarity with Kaepernick, especially when pundits started using our service as a crutch to hold up their argument against the protests.
I’ll give you a personal example of why I feel the way I feel. I came home from my second deployment and was with my wife and daughter trying to hail a cab. Someone rolls down the window of a red sedan and we hear the word, “Nigger!” hurled at us from a speeding vehicle. I turned to my wife, stone-faced, trying to find words to say. I couldn’t even look at my young daughter. I felt rage and then was overcome with a bitter sadness because I could not protect her from this hate that infects so many. So yes, I side with Kaepernick and believe in his cause and his struggle. With no apologies.
I have been looked at with suspicion and followed in stores more times than I have been looked at with respect while wearing my military uniform.
I have been stopped and frisked more times than I have been thanked for my service.
I have been called a nigger more times than I have been called a patriot.
I am a Black man, a father, a husband, and a combat-veteran. As proud as I am to wear those labels, above all else I would like nothing more than to think of myself as an American first.
But my country won’t let me.