“USA! USA! USA!” the basketball fans, most in costumes, shout across the gym when the national anthem ends and their university’s team takes the court.
Five guys dressed as Department of Transportation workers, sporting yellow helmets, orange vests, and jean shorts, raise the Stars and Stripes high above their heads as they chant. Another in their group, however, who wears a sleeveless T-shirt emblazoned with Old Glory, raises his fists.
Some students wear Spiderman’s red-and-blue outfit, black-webbed polyester clinging to their bodies. Others materialize as mimes and minions, blue men and gold women, the Queen’s guard and Sesame Street puppets, karate athletes and lumberjacks. Some reindeer appear, too (though not on the rooftop!), along with Santa Claus wannabes. McDonald’s French Fries stand beside a cow and its accompanying chicken, mimicking mock combat, hoof to claw, a la advertising by Chick-Fil-A, which boasts a franchise in the student center. One female student even dons a bald cap and police uniform, standing with her hands to her side: doppelganger for the campus’s beloved chief.
If the visiting team didn’t know any better, they’d think it was Halloween, but the snow and sub-freezing temperatures as well as the game’s name tell them otherwise.
Dubbed “Silent Night,” this is a game that national media has covered, declaring as NBC did in 2016, the event’s 20th anniversary, that it is “one of the best traditions in college sports.” Students began waiting for this event outside at 1:00, so they could grab good seats—as close to the front row as possible. The hours-long goal of the annual cold line is, of course, to be seen.
There’s nothing like it anywhere else. When all is said and done, no matter who wins (though the Athletic Director usually schedules a weak visitor), the fans all sing “Silent Night” together. But that’s not the main attraction: Here, on this December night, the fans remain mute until the home team scores its tenth point. Until that time, they cheer hoops with hands upraised, each finger waggling in waves, rather than with cheering and clapping. Quiet as the cornfields surrounding this Indiana school, participants are certainly not passive but rather premeditated and persistent in their silence.
The more hushed the crowd is, the more explosive the point.
In August of 2014, in a Walmart located just twenty minutes from my previous home in southwest Ohio, John Crawford III picked up a BB/pellet air rifle and walked up and down aisles while he chatted on his cell phone with his girlfriend at the time. He was breaking no Ohio law, as a professor and former police chief told me later.
I’ve watched the security camera’s video of the event several times. To me, and many others, Crawford looked like any man looks when on the phone with a woman insisting on something: engrossed in that conversation and unaware of his surroundings. Maybe he picked up the toy guy to have something for his hands to do, like my son fiddles with salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table or my daughter peels rivulets of wax from the sides of long-lit tapers. Whatever the reason, Crawford was barely paying attention to what he was doing, but he wasn’t aiming the gun at anyone or anything. Yet, the 9-1-1 caller told the operator Crawford was “pointing it at people.”
The video also shows how officers didn’t hesitate for a moment. They interpreted the caller’s statement as an active shooter situation. So within a second of seeing him, they downed Crawford, whom doctors pronounced dead at the hospital.
That had happened near an upscale mall and expensive restaurants and elite coffee roasters, all places I’d frequented when I lived for decades in Ohio. It felt like it happened in my own backyard.
“[T]he essence of a double bind is two conflicting demands, each on a different logical level, neither of which can be ignored or escaped. This leaves the subject torn both ways, so that whichever demand they try to meet, the other demand cannot be met. ‘I must do it, but I can’t do it’ is a typical description of the double-bind experience,” posited Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist who coined the term.
Double binds often occur in abusive relationships, with abusers creating the impossible logic. Sometimes, however, the double bind occurs when two seemingly compatible statements come in conflict, tearing them asunder and forcing a choice, as if one can be made without consequence.
Love your country. Sing her praises. Be grateful for the freedoms you have. Pledge your allegiance.
Love your fellow humans. Fight injustice which harms them. Fight for their freedom. Give voice to those who have no voice.
Leading up to the 21st event, excitement built on campus and for the first time ever, everyone who wanted to attend the famous game had to secure a ticket. Fire codes and public safety being what they are, the school finally decided that for the collective good, they had to limit attendance.
As a faculty member, therefore, I had to enter a lottery to acquire a seat. New this year, thanks to my move from Ohio, I had seen media coverage about the event before and was hearing all the hype from students, so I decided to throw my hat into that digital ring.
With whom would I go? Most of my colleagues had been there, done that, so I contacted a friend about whether she might be going. And indeed, she was. But, she said, it was complicated.
Several months ago, in the New York heat of an August afternoon, Frank Serpico, now 81, gave a speech. Serpico is famous for blowing the whistle on corruption in the NYPD half a century ago (and whose story inspired the Al Pacino movie), although young people may not know who he is now.
Eighty fellow police officers surrounded Serpico as they stood together before the Brooklyn Bridge. According to The New York Times, Serpico said he was there “to support anyone who has the courage to stand up against injustice and oppression anywhere in this country and the world.”
“Anyone in this context, specifically referred to Colin Kaepernick.
Edwin Raymond, a sergeant in the NYPD presently, organized the event and spoke as well: “As members of law enforcement, we can confirm that the issues [Kaepernick] is saying exist in policing, and throughout the criminal justice system, indeed exist.”
Thanks to the old spiritual, children learn early on that the “knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone.” This is no mystery, even to the toddler, as she touches her ankle, then shin bone in sync, and moves to her knee (on which, in a different tune, she might play knick-knack and sing the refrain, “This old man came rolling home!”).
Often, however, the context of the song is a mystery, leaving children and adults alike ignorant about the fact that this is the Valley of Dry Bones we’re talking about. This is Ezekiel’s terrifying vision of Israelis’ flesh husked from their skeletons, their exile vividly illustrated. Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, Jehovah had instructed them. But they had ceased to hear; they had mistreated the poor and raised idols above the Lord they tired of. They were, therefore, stuck in Babylon.
In this valley vision, God asked the prophet, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel knew God knew the answer—and said so—but sometimes, I wonder if between the lines, the all-too-human prophet wondered, “Why in the world are you asking me?!”
God is forthright thereafter. He promises Ezekiel He will dress the bones in tissues and tendons, flesh and hair; He will resurrect them. He promises Ezekiel, “They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them.”
Of course, Ezekiel had no idea when all this would happen. But he heard the word of the Lord and obeyed: He preached the prophecies, hoping in the one and only true God.
So the knee bone suddenly seems more important than a jingle or a lesson about our skeletal structures. The fact that James Weldon Johnson wrote the song makes it equally important for Americans. What was the early leader of the NAACP, who fought for federal laws against lynching, and a poet in the Harlem Renaissance doing writing a children’s song?
Answer: Nothing. This was no such ditty. This was no knick-knack on a drum or shoe.
These lyrics promised African-Americans that their bones would rise again, that though they, too, were exiled from their homeland, through no fault of their own, they would see Jehovah restore them. The performers’ voices ran up and down the spinal cord connecting head to toe, horrifying past to painful present, and present to glorious future.
So what could it mean more than a century later that an African-American adopted into a white family—and adopted as a son of God according to his own outspoken testimony—bends his knee bone before a flag raised above him prior to a football game, praying for justice for his brothers and sisters, seeking resurrection of the all-too-many dry bones that have littered American streets?
The bones of boys like Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old with an airsoft gun, the boy the 9-1-1 caller clearly identified as a “juvenile.” Shot by police who violated many a protocol when they pulled their cruiser up to him just a month before Christmas, Tamir fell, his single wound a crimson ribbon unraveling in the snow. Can you hear Tamir’s mom keening with the Hebrew mothers in “The Coventry Carol” for the sons cut down by Herod’s knife?
That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
There are so many more bones.
Bones of women like 92-year-old Kathryn Johnson, shot 39 times by Atlanta police, and Alberta Spruill, a city employee readying for work in New York City, both killed in “no-knock” drug raids based upon false information.
Bones of men like John Crawford III.
The bones of Eric Garner. Face shoved into cement with four officers restraining him, Garner, apparently guilty of selling individual, untaxed cigarettes—“loosies”—repeated not once or twice or even thrice, but eleven different times, “I can’t breathe.” And the coroner ruled that Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s illegal choke hold constituted homicide.
“Prophesy to the breath,” Adonai told Ezekiel. “Prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”
My daughter once suffered a dislocated knee cap. It is a gruesome injury, but it happened quickly. Playing basketball at a summer camp, a fellow athlete knocked into her knee and shoved her patella aside. For others, changing direction while simultaneously planting one’s foot can cause the dislocation.
Either way, one thing’s for sure: The knee cap endures tremendous stress it cannot resist.
My daughter required surgery to repair it and her overstretched medial collateral ligament. The pediatric orthopedic surgeon came highly recommended and ably made the repair.
A few years later, he was arrested and convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl. Three times. We could have defended him, truthfully asserting he never touched my daughter, so he should be left alone, he should be respected, and he should keep his job. He’s a brilliant surgeon.
But we didn’t for obvious reasons: Evil isn’t evil all the time. People who commit crimes can, in other spheres, do good. Like the rest of us, each criminal’s character has multiple dimensions. One may hate his neighbor but love his mother; another may perform magnificent surgeries but mar a young lady. And one is all it takes. Although Andre Agassi used to declare as he lowered his black sunglasses in the old Canon camera ad, Image is everything, we know better. It’s easier to manage appearances than reality; it’s easier to look good, even in some cases, do good, than to actually be good.
My friend and I enter the gym, meeting another friend and fifty students where they chose to sit: on the visitors’ bleachers—the section closest to the door—because it is not inaccurate to say we want to be seen as well, albeit for different reasons. Nor is it inaccurate to say being close to the door brings a certain degree of comfort: a quick exit is possible, if necessary. African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, international students, and a handful of whites like me hug and encourage each other. Dressed in black, we wear no humorous attire, unless, for some reason, you count the few in Kaepernick T-shirts, his afro doubling for a fist.
Most of us are nervous, but some are frightened. Some white students communicated threats earlier in the week, announcing they had friends who’d “kick anyone’s ass” who “took a knee.” So some administrators are nervous, too, having called meetings all week to make sure everything would be okay. The main theme went something like this: Media will be there. You have to realize there are ramifications for every action. In one meeting with students, however, they actually didn’t speak, hoping activist students and two African-American staff members, my friends, would bear the white man’s burden they seemed uncomfortable carrying.
Here I am, brand new to the school, assembled with this group of hurting students. I wonder at one point what I’m doing and how the last thing I want to do is bite the hand that now feeds me. After all, I understand complicated ties to donors and constituency, to a stable reputation, to quiet faith and a concern for students’ safety bind the school’s leaders to a certain extent.
I also know I am disgracing some in my own family who vehemently oppose Kaepernick and believe him to be disrespectful and ungrateful. I feel their shame on my shoulders.
Before the tip-off, pop music blares as the costume-clad students gather, laugh, and converse. The blue men’s spray-painted caps require adjustments and even, in one case, removal, so one kid can scratch his head with gusto. Cheerleaders in Mrs. Claus get-ups prance around the court; several shirtless guys in black shorts form a horizontal line in the front row of the home section, diagonally across from us, then lift signs that altogether spell, Censored.
There is no pep band and no drunkenness. The campus is dry and the students sober. Some professors and staff members show up with their families and walk past us on their way to concessions and back—with red-striped boxes of popcorn and Pepsi in hand.
Celebration—and safe, clean fun—actually seem the theme of the evening.
Eventually, a student-generated music video airs over the jumbotron: The diverse rappers—black and white, male and female—seem to embody hip hop, but most students in the video jive to music whose roots delve beneath impoverished, dangerous, underprivileged paths they’ve never walked. It is what it is in east central Indiana. Seeing diverse students singing together, truly having fun, has merit that can transcend mere entertainment.
Still, though, I cannot not quite discern the lyrics above the noise, except for the repetition of the words, “silent night.” The hip-hop beat, not the words, drives the gyrations on screen and in the house. And having taught for ten years at Wilberforce University, our nation’s oldest liberal arts HBCU, in the 1990s, I learned a thing or two about Dr. Dre and N.W.A. (one student once warned me, “You can’t listen to that, Ms. Moore; it’s too much for you. Seriously”), Snoop Dogg and LL Cool J, 2 Pac and The Notorious B.I.G.—in short, rap (and gangsta rap) music and the then-burgeoning genre of hip hop. I know, too, the singers’ hand gestures speak a language of their own, gestures some of my WU students were more than willing to demonstrate:
The Mos-Def Wave
The Slim Shady Chop
Each one conjures their eponymous images ubiquitous in the music. I see these gestures in the students’ video, hands and fingers waving, bending, and flexing.
They strike me as somehow anachronistic, not because of the problem of time but because of the problem of origin.
These gestures aren’t merely meant to generate MC swag. Indeed, emcees and rappers alike attempt to tap into what KRS-One refers to as “collective consciousness,” which really is another way of answering the same question I ask my students to consider when they write their essays: Who is your audience and what are they thinking about? In urban areas, that’s poverty. That’s a lack of affordable homes, safe neighborhoods, and self-supporting work. That’s paying more for food than your suburban counterparts. That’s cruel or unfair landlords or employers. That’s police brutality.
Hip Hop has always been political.
It emanates from Malcolm X’s desire to end the oppression and exploitation of the African diaspora. It comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for equality. His vision wasn’t located in a valley of despair but on a mountaintop of economic empowerment.
When the situation in Ferguson exploded as Michael Brown’s body lay slain and bloody—for hours—on that Missouri pavement, the protests and grief that overwhelmed not only the city but also the nation were nothing new. As Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley could tell you, if she were still alive, Blacks have suffered under racism’s myriad cruelties since the nation’s beginning, though its shapes constantly shift. It changes costumes every few decades.
More recently, rappers started chronicling such brutality in the 1970s when Afrika Bambaataa, an immigrant of Jamaican and Barbadian lineage, founded the Universal Zulu Nation through which developed the subculture and art movement now known as hip hop. Bambaataa defined the four main pillars of hip hop music: rapping; using record players like instruments, to create music in the form of beats, scratches, etc.; breakdancing; and creating graffiti art. Since hip hop is considered more of a culture than a genre of music, however, other elements follow closely behind, including a thorough knowledge of the history, philosophy, language, and intellectualism associated with the movement.
No wonder KRS-One points out this vital truth: “Rap is something that is done. Hip Hop is something that is lived.” No wonder Kendrick Lamar, like Flannery O’Connor before him, penetrates reality, no matter how ugly or profane, for all of it he’s witnessed during a Compton childhood—“murder, conviction, / Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption / Scholars, fathers dead with kids.” Lamar also raps in that same song, appropriately titled “DNA,” “My expertise checked out in second grade / When I was 9, on cell, motel, we didn’t have nowhere to stay.” This is the childhood that leaves him with nothing but longing: “I wish I was fed forgiveness.”
Which brings us back to those hands. Rappers look as though they are conducting the music, the symphony of the streets. And they interpret their stories, which they have lived—and which some of their friends and families don’t live through.
During the video at the game, I begin to wonder how many American-born-and-bred fans dancing in this gym, in this rural, Indiana town, have lived hip hop? And what is our safe, suburban DNA composed of? Can we who have never known want—in the biblical or even Dickensian sense—who have asked time and again for someone, anyone, to hide it beneath his cloak so as not to dwell too much on negativity, on ugliness, on impossibility—for the poor we will have always, as the Good Shepherd even said—use these gestures nearly unconsciously, as if just for show?
Poet Adrienne Rich once said, “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
Maybe there’s room for sympathy, though. Maybe those who enjoy the privilege of a comfortable neighborhood, a college education, and the confidence of belief are caught in a double bind, too?
Be yourself. Have fun. You’re only young once. Pursue happiness. Attain the American dream.
Be a servant. Humble yourself before the Lord. Esteem others over self, Kingdom over country.
It’s terrible. It’s so disrespectful. He’s so ungrateful for what he has, for what veterans have lost their lives for. He’s rich, for Pete’s sakes. What does he have to complain about?
Kaepernick started out by sitting during the anthem, yet, after a fellow football player, Army Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer, shared his perspectives on the protest, the players together decided Kaepernick should kneel instead of sit.
Boyer himself has said, “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.” He told Kaepernick that “taking a knee would be a little more respectful [than sitting]. It’s still a demonstration. You’re still saying something but, people take a knee to pray.”
What is the point of free speech if veterans’ deaths negate it? Do those in the military fight only for the appearance of freedom but not its actuality, a symbol without a spine?
As Eric Reid explains in his Op-Ed for The New York Times, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
“There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police,” Kaepernick says, making his reasons for his demonstration clear. “So that’s something that this country has to change. There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable. Make those standards higher. You have people that practice law and are lawyers and go to school for eight years, but you can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist. That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and more training that [sic] people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us.”
A curling iron? Seriously? That’s just silly. Besides, those guys were all breaking the law. And it’s 7 years for a lawyer. Get your facts straight, man.
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
They should choose another way to demonstrate.
Kaepernick and Reid are both professing Christians who attribute their activism to their faith. In fact, Reid has said James 2:17 compelled him to action, saying he had to wed works to his faith. Doing so was obedience to his Lord.
Reid says the killing of Alton Sterling in Reid’s own backyard, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, gave birth to his activism. Two officers shot Sterling multiple times in the chest at close range. Suddenly, the police killings that had disturbed Reid grew intensely personal; he realized anything like that could’ve happened to his own family members in his hometown. Anything like that could still happen.
So he joined Kaepernick in kneeling.
But the Bible says to submit to our government. Besides, they’re paid to play, not to get political.
I fear not the John Crawfords of this world but the system that misjudged the deer in headlights for a lion on the prowl. And the culture that is happy with Blacks as long as they produce what it wants to use. The same culture that produced Dylann Roof, who, one year after the Crawford killing, walked into a prayer meeting and slaughtered nine Black Christians who’d welcomed him in peace. Bye, bye, Lully, Lullay.
The U.S. Flag Code states that everyone present during the performance of the national anthem should “stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.” In addition, men should remove their hats, unless they’re in uniform.
Interestingly, according to the U.S. Flag Code, “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing” (emphasis mine). This is why anyone wearing a flag pin must affix it on his left lapel, for that is the one nearest the heart.
As a living thing, the flag commands respect, so the code also says, “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.”
Likewise, the code says the flag should “never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise” nor should it “ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.” Furthermore, one should never carry the flag “flat or horizontally” but should bear it strategically so it is always “aloft and free.”
Finally, when a flag becomes so worn out that it is no longer fit to fly, the owner should, according to the code, dispose of the flag in a dignified ceremony. Simply throwing the flag into the trash violates the code as would burying it. Instead, one should fold the flag neatly and burn it. Although in Indiana, burning a flag can result in a misdemeanor charge, the law makes this exception so owners can burn it in a bonfire pit as they pledge their allegiance and bid adieu.
Eventually, the university choir director leads the choir out to the court. The music stirs.
Before we arrive at that point, however, we need deliverance from the DoT guys, including the one festooned with flag. These road-worker imitators seem committed to standing in front of us, forming as they do, a kind of offensive screen. And their line has movement, as they take one, then two steps back, pushing into us.
The student with flag abruptly raises it shoulder-high, sparing it from his sweat for a moment. Then he crumples it in his hands like an empty burlap sack not yet ready to contain anything.
The police chief approaches, speaks softly, takes one guy by the arm, gently, then leads them all across the court. They stop in the home section, directly across from us, and seem quite pleased with their new placement. One wraps his flag around his shoulders again, but unevenly now, as the bottom red corner grazes the floor like a speck of blood.
We lack comfort on our side. The song plays. Our bodies become our flags, at half-mast.
I do not put my hand over my heart. I do not adore the elaborate, symbolic fabric. I put my head in my hand, pray to the only living one who can save us. I ask God for unity, for harmony, pleading that He redeem students who’ve voiced racial epithets without remorse and scrawled slurs on bathroom stalls, begging for peace for the students who suffered the insults. I ask forgiveness for my own failures and faults.
I pray for love above all else, because God is love, because we know hatred is borne of idolatry, and we know an idol when we see one. (Idols are not inanimate objects. They are living things. And when anyone faces losing them, he holds on tighter, and they hold on, too. Their name is legion.)
And after, as we rise, the still-helmeted road workers lead that unmistakable cheer from the other side—the deafening answer to our prayers, for no is an answer, too—that chant begun when the U.S. hockey team miraculously conquered the Soviets in 1980.
Three letters, shouted over and over again. Vowel, consonant, vowel.
The Stars and Stripes rise, too, and the cheer unites patriotic instincts with something else, something animalistic, even, but something I can’t quite name.
Whatever it is, it brings back that ice, that red stare, that Siberian punishment for loss.
In December 2014, after both the incidents with Tamir Rice and John Crawford III (and a year or so after the Black Lives Matter movement began), Ohio’s Attorney General Mike DeWine set up the Advisory Group on Law Enforcement Training, which recommended twenty-five specific changes in police training. In so doing, Ohio leads the way in analyzing not only that training but also officers’ relationships with the community.
Whereas before the incidents, according to the Akron-Beacon Journal, in Ohio, “police academy candidates only needed to be over 18 years old and eligible to carry a gun,” now candidates must possess “a high school diploma or GED,” pass drug tests, and undergo fitness evaluations. Moreover, the academy now teaches officers how to address their “inherent biases,” communicate to and behave appropriately with the mentally ill, and develop meaningful relationships with their community members. Finally, training now requires candidates to practice approved approaches in specific and high-stress situations.
In a statement eerily close to Serpico’s, Akron Police Chief James Nice said, “When you look at some of these bad situations, where the police officer was wrong, sometimes you find out that person should never have been an officer.”
Ah, so Black lives do matter.
Indeed, what American has never, not once, criticized her country about anything? Who has never argued for solutions to national or local problems, at least over dinner conversations? Who actually disagrees with Reid when he makes this most American of statements: “It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest. It should go without saying that I love my country and I’m proud to be an American. But, to quote James Baldwin, ‘exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually’”?
Knee bone connected to the thigh bone
Thigh bone connected to the hip bone
Hip bone connected to the back bone
Every American knows the first verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by heart, singing it as we often do at sports games, the most popular venue where it’s played. (Why sports games, amateur and professional, have become married to the anthem is a bit of a mystery to me.) Most Americans also know Francis Scott Key wrote the anthem amid the War of 1812 and wrote several other verses, too, though they may not know what they say. They know, too, that Key wrote it after seeing not the red cross of the Union Jack but the red stripes of Old Glory herself rising in victory over Fort McHenry following a British barrage of bombing on Baltimore—25 hours’ worth, in fact. And of course, they believe the U.S. won the war, even though our beloved neighbors to the north will tell us otherwise when we travel to Canada.
Some Americans may erroneously believe Key was imprisoned upon a British ship during the attack on Baltimore, but that wasn’t the case. Although impressment—the practice the Brits had of forcing American seamen off their ships to fight for the King—was one reason for the war, Key was not, forgive the pun, in that sort of boat. Instead, he was there on official business, lawyer that he was, negotiating—successfully, as it turned out—the release of an American prisoner with a fellow lawyer who accompanied him. The British insisted only that they complete their attack before the three Americans disembark. Sure, Key was ecstatic to see those stripes waving the next day, but he was free to go either way.
Very few Americans know that Key was, like most of his aristocratic counterparts of his day, unopposed to slavery. In fact, he grew up on a Maryland plantation that owned nearly 200 slaves, and Key believed all Blacks to be “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”
Just as bad, in his legal career, Key made a name for himself by trying to infringe on abolitionists’ free speech. The Smithsonian reports that in the case U.S. v. Reuben Crandall, “Key made national headlines by asking whether the property rights of slaveholders outweighed the free speech rights of those arguing for slavery’s abolishment. Key hoped to silence abolitionists, who, he charged, wished to ‘associate and amalgamate with the negro.’”
Americans could argue that this tawdry side to our national anthem’s author merely puts him in the same camp as most of our founding fathers (except the Quakers), and thus, that Key was just a man of his time. They could likewise truthfully point out that Key did represent Black clients during his legal career, something he didn’t have to do but did. Both arguments have some merit.
But could those Americans likewise argue Key’s racist views about Blacks and slavery are therefore irrelevant to the anthem we stand for, sing to, and laud with patriotic passion? Could they convince us that if Key had won his case, successfully prosecuting the abolitionist Reuben Crandall for publishing his pamphlets and fliers, that we’d still have the right to free speech?
One could try. But certainly, Key didn’t have African-Americans in mind as being either free or brave. And the anthem’s third verse is a killer.
Many historians believe that alludes to the Battle of Bladensburg, which took place just two weeks before the bombardment on Fort McHenry and which historian Daniel Walker Howe, calls “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.” At that battle, the Brits socked it to us, with the help of the Corps of Colonial Marines, composed entirely of American refugee slaves. Admiral Alexander Cochrane of the Royal Navy had issued a proclamation, liberating any slaves willing to fight the Americans. Thousands of enslaved families made their way to the Brits’ ships on the Chesapeake. Six hundred join that Corps.
Although the American forces initially banned slaves from their regiments, eventually, after some major losses (including the failure to expand into Canada), they desperately needed more men, so some slaves did join their forces. But for those who fought for the British, their motivation is easy enough to understand. After all, why would slaves feel patriotic about or grateful for the country that had so enslaved them? What did they have to lose? And why wouldn’t they fight for the refuge offered them, indeed, for their freedom, the same thing the Americans said they were fighting for?
And then there’s this: Imagine the terror of slave owners who may have to face their former slaves in battle; the psychological toll was torturous, and Cochrane, knighted in the end, knew it. Yet, when the Americans defeated the Royal Navy in Baltimore, imagine, too, the sense of vindication those same slave owners might have felt. The euphoria over defeating not only the King but also their rebellious slaves.
And then read, or sing, if you dare, our anthem’s third verse:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
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.
Then see this: The two white police officers, fully clad in uniform, atop Alton Sterling, who lies on his back on the concrete. One man’s knee leans in to Sterling’s gut, while the other officer’s knee traps his arm. Guns out of holsters, in their hands, pressing against Sterling’s black chest. Words fly: I swear to God.
Oh, the havoc of war, the battle’s confusion. What foul footsteps can his blood ever wash out?
The local news reports about the game are typical of the past 21 years: The students were silent (how cool), the tenth point scored (so cool), and the place exploded with students storming the court and cheering as if their lives depended on it (coolest tradition ever). And when the last buzzer sounded, the crowd sang “Silent Night” together.
I admit it: The tradition is cool, it really is. And amazing to experience first-hand. The rafters rattle and floor boards shake from the noise. The solemnity at the end is a juxtaposition of literary—or is it biblical?—proportions. One might even want to express with passion, in Whitman’s full-throttle voice, “Oh me! Oh life!”
The announcer tells students before the game begins, “Students are not allowed to come onto the court and should stay in their seats,” but they never obey. They rush in like rain, drenching everyone in their euphoria.
All too soon, though, I bemoan with Whitman the “endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish.” I remember that I am the most faithless and foolish of all, returning as I do, afterwards, to warm home and loving dog. I can walk around my new hometown—a sundown town into the 1990s, no less—any day of the week white and thus, unassailed by suspicion or the burden of representing my race every time I speak.
My friend thanks me for “standing in the gap” with her, but I tell her not to because it cost her a helluva lot—students had organized and led it, but she bore the brunt of accusations and suspicions and grief. It costs me nothing. I blend in to the woodwork.
In dismay, I bow my head again, wondering whether there will ever be peace on earth. Because the local media says nothing about the demonstration. Because the university waves its not-having-it hands so the highlight reel shows nothing but fans crazed by excitement, glory garnered from the victory, and tradition extended and extending for as long as anyone can see.
How cool can any event be when the real news is an erasure no one recognizes?
If students risk ass and attitude but are not seen, did their kneeling even happen?
I would like to believe, as Whitman did, the answer is that they were there, “that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and [they] may contribute a verse.”
I want to preach that longed-for truth from mountain tops and flat Indiana plains alike.
But those students are in a bind, and though they hope dem bones gonna rise again, they’ve grown weary and worn as the country they want to love uses its name against them.
They can’t quite see how that play ends.
Epilogue, of sorts:
PR erasure notwithstanding, in the month following the protest, the university began to develop a new system through which students can now file complaints about racial slurs and racist behaviors. Title IX, of course, does not cover such incidents. The Office of Intercultural Programs also hosted a panel of five people—three students, one OIP staff member, and myself—who had taken a knee at the game. Eighty-five students and some other deans and faculty attended. Interaction was civil. We shared our perspectives, and my fellow panelists spoke to the racist behavior they’d encountered—and their friends and family had experienced—back at home, in the area, or on campus. One student, who’s from the south side of Chicago, related his own terrifying experience of a mistaken “no knock” raid on his family’s house. They all survived, but not without deep scars and an even deeper distrust of the police. Although a couple of questions from the audience seemed to evidence a lack of awareness, we addressed them as respectfully as possible. Most attendees asked sensitive, thoughtful questions, and discussion could’ve continued for a long time. We know many are wrestling with perspectives different from their own and struggling to understand how something that once was so obvious and unquestionable to them—allegiance to the flag—has never been either for many other Americans. It was January, and temperatures outside hovered around zero. Yet, a thaw may have begun that evening—may have begun when students’ knees fell to that gymnasium floor. We know the recurring freezes that can go with that “may,” however; we know what an arctic blast can do. Prayer and perseverance are the real names of this game.
Julie L. Moore is the author of four collections of poetry, including Full Worm Moon and Particular Scandals, both published in The Poiema Poetry Series by Cascade books. Moore’s poetry has also appeared in Image, New Ohio Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, and Verse Daily. An Associate Professor of English and the Writing Center Director at Taylor University, Moore worships at R.E.A.L. Community Covenant Church, a congregation dedicated to multi-ethnic community and racial reconciliation in Marion, Indiana. You can learn more about her work at julielmoore.com.