Let America Be America, Again.

Taking a knee in protest has a long history in the United States



This week a sensational story captured the headlines and dominated my class discussions.



Like many opportunities, this presented a chance to make history come alive for my students and create clear uses for knowing history that are valuable and relevant to their lives.



The story was Donald Trump and his attack on player from the National Football League who protest during the national anthem.



The tweets which Donald Trump sent were as follows:



Trump's tweets on national anthem, NASCAR_8711344_ver1.0_1280_720.jpg


Donald Trump was calling out the protest of racial violence against African Americans that caught the attention of the media last year, when the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling by the sideline.

Colin Kaepernick

Interestingly, this is not the first time athletes have protests racial injustice in the United States. Like other protests, however, this was misunderstood by the white majority of the public to be an attack on the national spirit, and the armed services specifically.

In my class I decided to ask how they were reacting to this public debate. I have many high school football players in my class, and they generally agreed with Donald Trump that kneeling during the anthem disrespected the flag and the troops.


I was glad to see another side of the debate voiced by my students.

Many of them welcomed the chance to discuss the protests, and many joined in kneeling at the football game last Friday night.

I liked this because it showed that debates can have healthy expressions of many views, and that students embraced their rights as citizens to express their political perspectives through public protests. Citizenship education is in great need these days, and I was happy to see students growing in their civic awareness and participation.


I was also interested to see that the media generally focused on the debate over “free speech” and respect for the flag. Lost in the coverage, of course, was the real motivation and message of the protests: racial violence against African Americans.

Rosa Parks was not protesting public transportation.
What I heard that made most sense to me was that thinking the NFL protests were about patriotism or the the military is like thinking that Rosa Parks was protesting public transportation. I had to explain to my class that Rosa Parks was protesting the system that forced her to live like a second class citizen, regulated to the back of the public bus.


The NFL players are protesting a system that regulates African Americans to second class status, killing them in police shootings at rates far greater than other Americans, especially white Americans.


Since the kneeling of Colin Kaepernick reignited this debate, it is instrumental to start with him. I remind my class that the meaning of his protest needs to be remembered. But as a lesson in history, protesting by American athletes of color goes back well beyond Kaepernick.


Black Power Salute, Mexico City 1968
Perhaps the most famous happened at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. The protest by two American sprinters during the medal ceremony for their gold and bronze medal victories is remembered as 1968 Olympics Black Power salute.


Gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos donned black gloves and raised them in a fist during the playing of the American National Anthem. This black power salute symbolized the collective outrage that had seized the United States after a white man gunned down Martin Luther King, Jr. just a few months prior.


Like Kaepernick, these brave Olympians were speaking out to protest the killing of African Americans at the hands of white men. Like Kaepernick, both men were ostracized by the media and received death threats from the American public.


The reaction by white America to African American protests is nothing new, I explain to my students. White Americans routinely mistake the protest as a criticism of the nation, and the troops.


This is symptomatic of white privilege, and is something that needs as much education in school as citizenship, I find, as my students do not understand how growing up white can lead to the privilege of ignorance about what it means to grow up as a minority in this country.


Reacting as Donald Trump does is a good example of white privilege. Trump deliberately frames the protests as anti-American, because he has shown a bigotry that sees African Americans as illegitimate.
Ta-nehisi Coates


When I explain to my class with frank honesty that Trump is a bigot, there is no debate. I am silently surprised that this is now almost universally accepted as truth. But that observation is better understood in the excellent article by Ta-nehisi Coates on the whiteness of Trump.


But the history of this white privilege in reaction to African American patriotism is also very informative.

The kneeling protests of American football players is patriotism on display, I argue. Like the decision to stand for the anthem, the decision to kneel for it is a political act.

Those who argue that the football field should not be a place of political speech misunderstand the political role American football has always played.


American football was developed in the late 19th century as a way to instill the fighting spirit of the frontier in American men. With the taming of the American west finished the game was developed as a way to keep violence alive in the training of young men. Theodore Roosevelt was a big supporter of early American football, even after it led to many deaths on the field and there were calls for the game to be abolished in the name of safety.

After the Native American Wars were over, many young Native American children were taken from their tribal communities, stripped from their families and their culture, and sent to live in Indian Schools.

These schools were designed to “kill the Indian”, but save the child by teaching how to be Americanized into the dominant white society.
The Carlisle Indian School


Part of that training included instruction in American Football.


Sally Jenkins has written about the inspiring story of the Carlisle Indian School and their famous football team in the history, The Real All Americans: The team that changed a game, a people, a nation.


The Real All Americans
By Sally Jenkins

The Carlisle Indian School was the most famous, and many of the players even went on to play professional football. Jim Thorpe, was perhaps the most famous, and he not only played professionally, but the Jim Thorpe Award is still given annually to the best defensive back in college football.


The coach of the Carlisle Indian School was the legendary coach Pop Warner, and played many early games against Harvard and Yale universities.

The idea of playing the elite all white school of Harvard and Yale was the brainchild of Carlisle founder Richard Henry Platt, who as a U.S. Army officer brought Sioux Indian children from South Dakota to educate them and assimilate them into white America.

If the Carlisle Indians could play Harvard in American football, then Platt felt the experiment in assimilation would be see as successful.


The Carlisle team was wildly successful, developing the first spiral pass, and the first handoff fake, two plays that are still routinely used in American football today.

At the time they were pioneered by the Carlisle Indians, however, they were routinely determined to be illegal if they helped the Native Americans best their white opponents.


This reaction by Harvard and Yale and other all white elite schools is the white privilege that Trump is tweeting about today.

It is white privilege because, when an action by a non-white American disrupts the narrative of white American success, even if only to remind us that it is white propaganda or the privilege of ignorance about inequality, then it is illegal, or a violation of the rules.


For the Carlisle Indians they were not supposed to win, but to compete and lose to white schools.

For Trump, African Americans are supposed to compete in American life and keep quite about how the rules are designed to insure that they lose.


The protests by National Football players are provocative and illustrative in this way.

Trump and white Americans see the players and their political speech as anti-American, or anti-military.

But this example offers another lesson in American history, beyond just the white privledge and Donald Trump’s bigotry.

Interestingly enough, African Americans who have embraced American patriotism, leadership or even military service have suffered far worse for their efforts than football players who are scolded by the President.


When African Americans began to serve this country in uniform it provoked a similar reaction from white Americans, who saw the uniforms like the national anthem of the flag. To white Americans these symbols have been about white identity in a nation that was deliberately founded for white people.



African Americans who were seen wearing American military uniforms were seen as disrespectful to the nation and the (white) troops.

In a wonderful article about the history of white violence towards African Americans who serve the nation comes from the Equal Justice Institute. It was highlighted by Peter C. Baker in an article in The New Yorker.

African American Soldiers, post WW2


Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Institute, explains:

“We do so much in this country to celebrate and honor folks who risk their lives on the battlefield…But we don’t remember that black veterans were more likely to be attacked for their service than honored for it.”



It’s ironic to consider that the attacks by our president on those who protest racial violence are seen as slights against the military. Its ironic because when African Americans donned the uniform of the military that they often suffered racial violence.



It is revealing that Trump is the response of white America to the advance of an African American as the first patriot; a reaction to an African American who became the president.


In this way Trump actually embodies American history. It is not a pleasant embodiment by any means, but sadly Trump is an accurate mirror of our nation’s racial past and present. Trump’s tweets and the kneeling protests are the crossroads of American history.


One of the earliest reactions to African Americans in Uniform was in the post Civil War era of Reconstruction (1865-1877) The Equal Justice Institutes relates a shocking incident of the lynching of an African American veteran after the Civil War:

Buffalo Soldiers in Wyoming

The mob stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and then cut off his sexual organs. He was then forced to run half a mile to a bridge outside of town, where he was shot and killed.”


During the Spanish Civil War, April-August 1898, Theodore Roosevelt famously used the Buffalo Soldiers in his Rough Riders platoon to fight at San Juan Hill. The buffalo soldiers were African American soldiers who were trained in riding and shooting after living on the Great Plains. Once they donned the uniform of the American military, however, the reaction of the white majority was representative of the insult they felt it represented to the symbols of the nation.



Professor David Davis, Associate Director of the Spencer B. King, Jr., Center for Southern Studies, writes in the African American Review, a scholarly journal of history:

“Military service makes an unequivocal case for equal citizenship, so cases of African American veterans threatened with lynching, of their family members lynched in their absence, or their actual lynching expose the hypocrisy of American intervention in World War I and the arbitrary brutality of American racism.”


American patriotism is symbolic of American white privilege. The privilege of being in a nation devoted to the advancement of white people has been part of the laws, the culture, the religious doctrines and the patriotic symbolism of the United States since the founding of the nation.


It even continued after World War Two, in obvious legal and economic advancement for whites, and not for minorities, who fought with equal love of country and sense of sacrifice.



African Americans who returned from the war were attacked, just as their fathers and grandfathers were attacked after the Spanish American War and their great-grandfathers had been attacked after the Civil War.



So just as their uniform threatened the white privilege of Americans who define their patriotism as only legitimate in their perspective, and any other expression as illegitimate, the benefits of that narrow expression were limited to whites as well.


A great patriot once went to jail rather than support the military. Muhammad Ali famously gave up his heavyweight title and went to jail rather than participate in racial violence in Vietnam.



Ali said: 


For Ali, service without thought is betrayal of higher laws. Standing for the anthem without thinking would not be patriotic. I believe Ali would kneel today next to the NFL players on the sidelines of games across the country.


Langston Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote about this white patriotism in his poem Let America Be America:


Langston Hughes, poet

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

In these few lines Hughes reveals exactly the problem between Trump and Kaepernick and all those who protest the national anthem. It is because the national anthem does not mean the same thing for all Americans. To demand it be so it totalitarian in spirit and almost the definition of un-American.


Hughes continues,

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
Langston Hughes could be writing directly to Trump today, except that this poem was written in 1935.


Here Hughes evokes imagery of all those who have not benefited, but suffered from the United States and her growth.


Interestingly the mention of “the red man” reminds me of the Washington Redskins. This NFL team plays football in our nation’s capitol, before crowds containing leaders from all across the nation. Ironically, the name of this team is itself a racists term for native Americans.


In fact, if you know your history, you know that the term “redskin” refers the scalps of Native Americans cut from their dead and claimed as trophies by members of the American military. The term specified the different amounts to be paid for the scalps of men, women, and children.


But to remember history might offend white Americans. It is better, some say, not to provoke that remembrance.

It might be considered un-American by Donald Trump, or by those who profess to love the troops.

It might be better to just stand and sing the anthem, crying out in patriotic hallelujahs at the pinnacle of the last stanza, “the land of the free, and the home of the brave!”


Hughes poem continues, as if an answer to that urge to turn inward. Hughes reminds us of our white privilege…
The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
The dream of equality seems on the decline for many, especially African Americans and Latinos. Trump has spoken about the need to violently strike down those who would speak out, and expel those he feels does not belong.

Hughes continues:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Hughes calls out to us today from an American long past but never changed.

Trump calls out to his supporters to “Make America Great Again.”

I think that Hughes is more accurate when he tells us to “make america again!”

He says this because we have never made America what is is supposed to be. We have never made America live up to the promise of its founding creed, that all men are created equal.

We need to continue to take a knee in protest if we truly lover this country.

Those who expect a blind patriotism of all are not true patriots. They allow for the shortcomings of the nation. They accept when we fall short of what makes America great.

They do not love the country enough to make it better.

Those who know what America can be and expect more of it are the real patriots. This is the citizenship education that students need to learn in school.

They take the knee to call for America to be all that she can be, and never sing blindly a song which has no meaning unless it means the same for all Americans.

When it does, then we should all sing in unison and in unity.

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