My earliest memory of the flag is probably pledging allegiance to it in the 3rd or 4th grade. Of course, I had no idea what allegiance meant or who Richard Stands was either. Nor did I understand why our nation was invisible. I figured it was a good thing to be invisible so the Nazis couldn’t find us on a map and bomb us. It wasn’t till we learned long division that I got the concept of being indivisible. It’s a good word; one of those that no longer applies.
Today we are very divisible. Not only in half but more like in thirds. In the 2016 election the largest fraction were the None of the Above party numbering 94.2 million eligible voters. We have become a country of no-shows. Then came the Democrats (65.8 million) and the smallest number went to the winners (62.9 million). Try explaining that to the kids in third grade.
The 4th of July brings out flags displayed in windows, on fences and poles to say nothing of mattress ads, holiday buying sprees and assorted block buster sales events. It’s the American way. Nothing is more patriotic than consuming.
Flag-waving is so pervasive it isn’t usually seen as the political act that it is. Like a bumper sticker or tattoo the flag is an advertisement, an identity. It has become the great signifier of the Republican Party. The word Patriotism seems to belong to those who watch Fox News because it connotes might and blind loyalty and never dissent. Just as the Confederate flag enraged Blacks in particular and Liberals in general the U.S. flag is rapidly reaching that powerful a symbol. Enormous flags are unfurled at opening day baseball games as well as professional football games along with planes buzzing the stadium and a military presence. It is a statement which says that the sport is allied with flag and country; that is to say, Power and Law Enforcement.
And then comes the National Anthem. The announcers are White. The owners are White. Those of us watching on T.V. are mostly White. The coaches mostly White. The players predominately Black. How to make a countervailing statement with a national platform? How else to protest but to take a knee? No disrespect to uniformed men in the armed service. No flag burning. Not even an arm raised as in the 1968 Olympic Games. Just a knee before 15 million viewers to remind us of a culture of police shootings of unarmed people of color, to remind us that the extravaganza of White dominance has an answering voice. One political act warrants another.
Response to the courage of Black athletes demanding to be heard has largely been outrage by sports writers and commentators. These are the same people who know nothing about the daily indignities and existential threats endured by the Black population. Just play the game, they say. Don’t bring politics into sports, they proclaim as if they haven’t already done so for years. The few football players who have knelt in solidarity have risked millions. 70% of the teams are Black. There would be no National Football League without Black players. Three out of every four players in basketball (NBA) are Black. There is a rich heritage of Black athletes speaking out from Paul Robeson to Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to LeBron James though the silence of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan is deafening.
The legacy of Robinson has been kept alive by the persistence of his wife, Rachel Robinson. She has been an equal hero for the past fifty years. However he is usually celebrated for his constraint on the playing field rather than his militancy. This is White society’s fantasy. It should be noted that Robinson, in his final years, DID NOT STAND for the national anthem.
The Pledge has more going for it than the Anthem. The latter is star-spangled bombast. The former has references closer to the Constitution in all its allusions to equality and justice. It was written by the socialist, Francis Bellamy. Maybe if Woody Guthrie’s, This Land Is Your Land, replaced Francis Scott Key’s drinking song it would bring the country closer together to what we might truly call, indivisible.
For further reading on the subject I recommend, Howard Bryant’s new book, Heritage, published by Beacon Press.