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“A People Torn Between Two Anthems”

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

The story of Colin Kaepernick captivated America’s attention in 2016. The famous NFL quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers rose to fame by leading his team to a Superbowl appearance in 2013. Who could have predicted then that his fame would eventually be met with utter disdain? Nevertheless, after pictures of him kneeling during the playing of the national anthem circulated news cycles globally, he would experience severe vilification. Where one stands on Colin’s actions may differ, but by now most American’s have undoubtedly become aware of his public display of social concern for the oppression of Black people.

the perpetual oppression of Black Americans profoundly compromises the social function of these espoused ideals.

In our current climate, it is debatable whether or not the honorable ideals of liberty and justice can truly endure. Most would agree that the perpetual oppression of Black Americans profoundly compromises the social function of these espoused ideals. Some would even suggest that the ideals themselves are irredeemable. Nonetheless, Americans must now reconsider whether the perpetual oppression of Black Americans has irreparably crippled our shared commitment of liberty and justice for all.

The competence to resist the advancement of dishonor on our highest ideals of liberty and justice is our highest civic duty. Indeed, publicly dishonoring our shared ideals warrants unfailing public confrontation. The form of this confrontation may vary. Whether through protests or quiet reflections, American’s have produced civic spaces for the purpose of social and political development. Robert Putnam was poignant in his observation that America is indeed better when it refuses to bowl alone.[i] Our tradition of moral debate and dissent reflects this ongoing confrontation with social forces endeavoring to dishonor our highest ideals.

Most Americans would agree that our collective strivings to realize the ideals of liberty and justice for all are worth rigorous debate. We are a nation being constantly confronted with courageous moral dissent. Undeniably, we are a fragile nation struggling towards democracy. James Kloppenberg provides a comprehensive intellectual compilation of key ideas inspiring our democratic strivings in his work Toward Democracy. For him, democracy is an ethical idea.[ii] But what kind of ethics might aid our journey towards democracy?

Without a doubt, Americans honor the ideals of liberty and justice when they see the American flag and hear the national anthem. Honoring those symbols is a part of our national ethical development. Notwithstanding the problems of their genesis, the American flag and the national anthem have evolved for many to symbolize our shared commitment to those ideals. Americans of all colors and genders have bled and died on battlefields all over the world for them. Men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, southerners and northerners once fought against each other so that those ideals might live. The Civil War can most readily be seen as evidence that those ideals do have the capacity to transcend even our most sacred societal relationships.

Now, he was being torn between two anthems. He was torn between two visions of America.

For most Americans, those sacred ideals and our national ethical aspirations were challenged by Colin Kaepernick’s actions. Most would agree that we have not lived up to those ideals in far too many ways. Nonetheless, they still believe those ideals have more to say to us, more to teach us, and more to asks of us if we would only listen. Admittedly, if we belittle those ideals of liberty and justice, how then shall we guide our national footsteps? Those who oppose Colin Kaepernick’s actions are deeply skeptical of his commitment to those sacred ideals. They see in the flag and hear in the national anthem the best of our collective strivings for those inspirational ideals, despite the racial imperfections of our practices.

Without dismissing those concerns, there is another view that could help illuminate what Colin Kaepernick’s actions represent. Yes, he was deeply concerned about police killings of Black Americans and the societal response to those killings. Yes, he saw himself giving voice to the voiceless. Many have written about his actions and ruminated brilliantly on their psychological and societal implications. But in addition to his own statements, there is another tension that animates his actions. There is something larger at work in his social disposition. An unasked question haunts the discourse of our national ethical development. Could Colin Kaepernick’s actions be the latest manifestation of a darker conflict?

Colin’s controversial civic display emerges as a consequence of his new education. “The Awakening of Colin Kaepernick” was not coincidental, according to John Branch of The New York Times.[iii] He reports that Colin reached out for new information specifically about Black people and oppression in America upon entering the NFL. He describes Colin as an intellectually curious young man. Colin wanted to understand the world he inhabited. He wanted to better understand Black people and their struggles. He wanted a new kind of education that might illuminate the persistent oppression of Black people.

He could not have foreseen how this new education would put him in direct conflict with America. The America he knew and loved would become a strange place. Like Frederick Douglass, his education made his current life unbearable. His eyes had been opened. Now, he saw typical killings of Blacks in America as lynchings. Now, he saw injustice and oppression more clearly. The America he began to see resembled more and more of what he was reading about in Black history. Now when he heard the national anthem, he could simultaneously hear the Negro national anthem. He could hear the charge for Black Americans’ to lift every voice and sing until earth and heaven ring with the harmony of liberty. Now, he was being torn between two anthems. He was torn between two visions of America.

Black Americans seem to be constantly torn between these two anthems. I would go on to suggests that America is now being torn between these two anthems as well. 

Colin Kaepernick is not alone in this struggle. In January 2009, President Barack Obama’s Inaugural ceremony charged Rev. Lowery to give the benediction. The benediction would be heavily criticized afterward. Rev. Lowery offended many by invoking lyrics from the Negro national anthem. Some critics viewed the language as racist. Other critics sounded the alarm of racism in reverse. Still, others wondered when we would stop being a country of different colors and just be Americans. And yet, Rev. Lowery could not have foreseen how revelatory his inaugural behavior would prove to be. In many ways, he was demonstrating a conflict at the soul of Black America and America. He was demonstrating what WEB Dubois referred to as double-consciousness. He was reminding the nation that the Negro national anthem was still necessary for the ethical development of the nation.

The Negro National anthem penned by James Weldon Johnson was not merely a popular song. In May We Forever Stand, Imani Perry shows that the Negro national anthem reflects a principled cultivation of allegiance towards an ideal Black community.[iv] In search of the ideal, Black Americans have trodden their path through the blood of the slaughtered. The Negro National anthem deserves allegiance from Black American’s who have shed silent tears for centuries. The Negro National anthem deserves allegiance from those who kept their eyes on the prize and continued to march up freedom’s highway. Many may suggest Colin Kaepernick taking a knee reflects his ignorance of the ideals of liberty and justice, their reading of him might stand to benefit from the inherent nature of these two anthems. His behavior illuminates a constant tension birthed within Black Americans on slave ships and cultivated on American soil. His behavior, like Rev. Lowery, represents the ongoing reality of being torn between these two anthems.

In light of this constant conflict, the gentle reader must ask the inescapable question. To which anthem should Black American’s pledge their allegiance? Besides, what would America be without the moral dissent of Black Americans? Black Americans seem to be constantly torn between these two anthems. I would go on to suggests that America is now being torn between these two anthems as well. Debates over statues and symbols are reflections of this internal conflict. Many White Americans are becoming increasingly more torn when viewing America’s past through the eyes of Black Americans. The weight of injustice seems insurmountable. How might we reconcile these two anthems? While I dare not speak for Colin, Rev. Lowery, Black Americans, nor White Americans at large, it seems that our collective struggle might benefit from a reconsideration of W.E.B. Dubois’ words in this classic passage:

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.”[v]

By Rev. Jarvis F. Williams, MDiv., Ph.D. Candidate

[i] See: Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

[ii] See: Kloppenberg, J. T. (2016). Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[iii] Branch, J. (2017). The awakening of Colin Kaepernick. The New York Times.

[iv] See: Perry, I. (2018). May We Forever Stand: A history of the Black National Anthem. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press Books.

[v] Du Bois, W.E.B.. The Souls of Black Folk (Original Classic Edition) (p. 14). G&D Media. Kindle Edition.