There is nothing more patriotic than the commitment to ensure and uphold our most sacred national values: equality, justice and liberty. One form of patriotic expression, when these values are violated, is to cryptically or symbolically resist. From dance and song used to coordinate resistance to bondage to lunch counter sit-ins – these, and countless other actions, are rooted in service to defending America’s values. Born from Black America’s history of leadership in advancing liberty and equality, this form of service has become a custom in American patriotic expression. Most recently, we’ve seen professional athletes take up this tradition by kneeling for racial justice.
CLICK TO TWEET: #TakeAKnee is part of a long tradition of black patriotic expression, of an American heritage.
Players started kneeling in 2016, when then 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick symbolically protested police violence against people of color and racial injustice. Since then, dozens of Black professional athletes (and one white) have kneeled. Kaepernick sat through the anthem in his first protests. But, after working with former Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick began to kneel instead. In a CBS interview, Boyer explained how he came to middle ground in his counsel to Kaepernick to kneel instead of sitting, “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect…”
However, in his Alabama stump speech for Senator Luther Strange, Trump mocked the freedom of Black athletes who kneel, after referring to them as “sons of bitches” and demanding the players be fired: “…and I know we have freedoms and freedom of choice… And many, many different freedoms. But you know what… it’s still totally disrespectful.” Trump said, while flailing his arm to connote irritation and mockery.
He argued that these protests “disrespect our heritage” and “everything that it stands for.” Whose heritage? If it’s a heritage that doesn’t call for freedom, justice and equality for all – as do the players’ actions – he can’t be talking about any heritage that belongs to Black Americans. Trump doesn’t appreciate nor understand that African American heritage is also an American heritage.
Trump’s rhetoric condemns traditional Black patriotic expression and suggests we should shut up and get back in our place. This harkens back to past plantation narratives, in which Black people were coerced into maintaining the comfort and entertainment of White owners, overseers, and spectators — singing them sweet plantation lullabies, putting on good profitable slave-fights, working that plantation field, and keeping quiet about equality, freedom and justice. Swap that plantation field for a football field, and Trump’s rage fits snugly into that plantation experience.
Trump talks about how the players’ civic engagement is ruining football, a sport in which African Americans comprise about 70 percent of players. He even mocked efforts to protect the physical safety of football players: “Today if you hit too hard, ’15 yards’ and throw him out of the game… they’re ruining the game…” It appears that Trump longs for a time past, when Black people were forced to brutalize, maim and kill one another in slave-fights for White men’s profit and entertainment. Yes, let’s #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.
He went on to say, “But, what’s really ruining the game is when people like yourselves turn on the television, and you see those people take a knee…”
“Those people”? Really?
“Those people” have been Black players, except one. So, watching Black people push for American values offends Trump’s understanding of his and his supporters’ heritage. He places this “heritage” above honoring freedom, justice and equality – each of which was furthered by Black, Native American, Latinx, LGBTQ, Women’s (and so many other) American experiences. Their defense and pursuit of liberty wasn’t accomplished by keeping the White men folk comfortable and entertained. Yes, White wealthy men gave the United States the idea of a country founded on the principles of liberty, justice and equality, but everyone else gave the United States the actualization of it.
The continued effort to move our nation’s principles from concept to full reality is symbolized when our athletes take a knee for racial justice. This form of Black patriotism is of an American heritage – a heritage that Trump doesn’t acknowledge and doesn’t understand.
Joe Jackson is Greenlining’s Diversity and Inclusion Manager.