Poems, Privilege, and Untimely Kneeling

It is a rare thing, but once in a great while a poem will write itself. That’s the case with Generation Gap. All the stories my grandparents shared with me throughout my childhood built America for me. In my America fairness and equality cannot be assumed, but always hoped for, striven for. In my America, petty cruelty exists. Women will be shamed by men they do not know for reasons they cannot fathom. Children lacking a respectable surname will be presumed undeserving of respect.

Here in my America, societal rules rarely come written out, so even a kid who learned to read early won’t gain an advantage.

Whether it was intended, or not, my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather put together a narrative that helped me understand that America has been failing its purpose for quite a long time. And whether it was their intention, or not, they inspired me to learn the details of this nation’s purpose and expect it to one day become a reality. I cherish democracy, but I have never had the luxury of believing it to be without flaws.

The first time I read Let America Be America Again, by Langston Hughes, I thought of Mattie and JD. They knew injustice, prejudice, and inequality from  youth to old age. They knew these words to their bones without every laying eyes on the poem.

Mattie and JD learned the Pledge of Allegiance by heart. They knew the words and weight of the National Anthem, hummed God Bless America. Neither of them ever instilled within their children or grandchildren a distrust of their nation. Quite the opposite. (Wariness of bureaucrats, well, that’s another matter.)

My grandparents had a lot to hope for America’s future. To them, the flag was a symbol of that hope, and so were their grandchildren. Hope is a powerful thing. Nonetheless, even the power of hope without action cannot ensure a child thrives. And so the same applies to a nation.

We are indeed a nation of protesters and rebels, citizen journalists, citizen soldiers, informed voters. All, in my opinion,  something to be proud of. Injustices occur. Injustices will recur. History serves to prove Americans will eventually take a stand, and resistance to Americans who take the stand can get ugly. Violent. Embarrassing. But we persevere.

We’ve got a lot going on within the borders of this country right now. To be blunt, keeping up with all of it is exhausting. Disheartening. What’s most disheartening to me is just how off-track we can get when trying to make a valid point. Social media doesn’t help. There is a lot to enjoy about social media, and I have many types at my fingertips on a daily basis. But I knew we were in trouble that first morning I turned on the TV to find a national morning show REPORTING ON A TRENDING CAT VIDEO. What? High-earning, highly educated, experienced journalists just spent ten minutes of air time talking about a funny cat video, first shared on Facebook.

We’re doomed. Those were the words that played through my mind. We’re doomed.

Little did I suspect at the time that this nation would one day be subjected to a tweeting presidential candidate. It’s bad enough that a sometimes uninformed public has the ability to spread unverifiable news around the world in a matter of seconds, now we’ve got this guy to deal with. Surely our society hasn’t spiraled so out of control that Facebook likes and twitter feeds can influence voters to elect a deliberate antagonist for president.

Yeah.

Rather than a people passionately striving for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are we really becoming lustful for click baited online mudslinging? Instead of striding purposefully toward human equality and peace, are we really this far off the mark?

Following a series of recorded and posted instances of police brutality, parts of this nation lit up with anger and violence that was then recorded, posted, and shared all over the world. Everyone had an opinion, which of course, spurred more anger and violence. Though it is still shocking, massively shared videos that contained undeniable proof of police brutality were not always proof enough to get bad cops convicted.  Some cities spent millions equipping police officers’ uniforms with cameras, and still, video proof did not bring convictions.

Past instances of brutality not filmed, and not shared to social media, were rehashed. Old horror stories came to light. (Although, I think anyone who’s ever lived in a small town where the good-ole-boy network is uniformed and armed can attest that bad behavior has been a thing for decades, the general public was not fully aware.) Protests broke out locally, in capital cities; national news gave some coverage, and a few lawmakers attempted to speak out.  For the most part, though, social media did the reporting. Wild theories, baseless accusations, and knee jerk reactions were difficult to untangle from facts. And our legislative system kept on proving just how out of touch it is.

For a while, social media got distracted with the presidential race and the ensuing fiascoes. Then very quietly and without first being noticed by the national eye, in August of last year, a well paid professional athlete sat during the National Anthem. When finally noticed and asked what was up, he 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.”

This season numerous players are showing their agreement with that statement by taking a knee during the National Anthem.  Not surprisingly, thousands, maybe millions, of Americans have taken to social media to complain about privileged millionaires disrespecting the flag. What other country can black kids grow up to become multimillionaire athletes? The divide is growing, and it seems that now social media’s consensus has become that it’s white Republicans that are offended by this protest while only broad-minded Democrats understand these are citizens exercising their constitutional rights.

Here’s the thing: They’re all right. And they’re all wrong.

While some may view such an opinion as hardcore nationalist nonsense, the truth of the matter is the average American takes offense to the flag being disrespected. Regardless of how far we progress, how far we get away from the assumed national morality so strongly promoted after WWII, that flag, that anthem, is HOPE. Remember what happened after 9/11? The flag flew from porches, car windows, apartment balconies, businesses, and churches.

You don’t mess with the flag.

The people who take issue with players taking a knee during the anthem, if asked, take no issue with protesting police brutality or racism. Violence for the sake of violence from those bound to serve and protect is unconscionable, and whether social media is trending with it or not, this nation is angry about the blatant disregard of blue-clad criminal activity. We can’t assume that the argument against protesting during the anthem only comes from white republicans plotting to have black people murdered in the streets. Such assumptions would be prejudice and racism in action.

My immediate concern–which precedes the backlash of Kaepernick’s sit down–is his deliberate choice to first antagonize, then to make a verbal statement.

When someone chooses to gain attention by challenging heartfelt beliefs (i.e., love of the flag), reactions will be emotional, and any emotional reaction can then be skewed to reinforce aspects of the challenger’s message. Kaepernick protested racism and police violence against citizens of color, therefore–according to ensuing statements made by his supporters–anyone who speaks out against his manner of  protest must be a racist supporter of killer cops.

This, my friends, is neither a logical conclusion, nor a fact.

Speaking of deliberate antagonism:

I would now like to make a plea to the presidential staff and White House officials. Come on, y’all. Someone there must have the influence and authority to determine what speeches are read, and whether they are read ON LIVE TV without benefit of editing. Personally, I’m not impressed if he is a business genius, or if he has the ability and gumption to clean up the national budget. Those are potential  pluses no one will ever pay attention to if he is allowed to continue mouthing off on twitter or on camera.

Our past presidents weren’t all paragons, we know. But at least JFK had the good sense to not televise his penchant for infidelity. Nixon didn’t exactly tell the public na, na, na-na I can do whatever I want, while in front of a bank of national news cameras. Read up on this stuff, will you? Good old fashioned American plainspeak is one thing, publicly poking every voting-age citizen with a stick is something else. Control your guy.

/plea

I have never had the luxury of believing democracy to be without flaws. I did, however, learn from people who had experienced the worst of human behavior that the worst does not have to be accepted as the norm.

It’s easy to sit here, not an African American, not an athlete with or without survivor’s remorse, and say there are a thousand and one ways African American athletes could protest away from the field.  Even so, I would like to point out that inner city/community programs could use your voice, your face, and your dollars to make a difference in the lives of kids who might one day find themselves the focus of a routine traffic stop.

Perhaps, redirecting your energies to local community outreach, speaking at law-enforcement events, joining in fundraisers for the children of brutality victims … perhaps, standing for the flag after helping a real person just might get the results you want.

This country, this flag and all our hopes for what it should mean are not the origin of our problems. This country is made up of soil and man-made borders; the flag is a symbol of all the best possibilities. That anthem is a poem about celebration of victory over oppressors.

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