The Tender Activist: Making a stand by sitting

By : Scottie Campbell
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scottie campbellI grew up in a military household. My biological father – more aptly referred to as ex-father – and my stepfather – more rightly referred to as Dad – were both in the Air Force, so I spent the first 21 years of my life on military bases. Though the teen-angster in me often bemoaned the lifestyle of having my ID checked by a soldier with an M16 just to go to school, today I consider myself lucky for the opportunities afforded to me as an Air Force brat.

Our National Anthem played a large role in our lives. When we went to the movies on base, we stood for the national anthem before it began. Everything would stop for the National Anthem each day when it was broadcast on loudspeakers; we all would stand still where we were, cars would stop and the same thing would repeat for a broadcast of “Taps” at night.

Hearing that, an outsider might assume I was somehow programmed by this experience, but I can assure you that I am a present being when the National Anthem is played, and I stand, usually with my hand over my heart. Often during these times, I’m contemplating why I stand: Sometimes I’m thinking about the combat Dad went through on behalf of our country, and sometimes I’m wondering how people weren’t raised to respect the National Anthem instead of running their mouth or hunt Pokemon while it’s playing.

I’m reminded of a line from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe up on them.” Having our diverse traditions is what makes America rich, but in rising for the National Anthem there is a communal moment of saying, “For better or worse, we’re in this together.”

Initially, when I heard about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick protesting by sitting down during the National Anthems of games he is playing in, I was taken aback. I had a knee-jerk, “Oh, you just don’t do that,” reaction, and that visceral response is probably why Kaepernick’s stand to sit is making an impact on America and starting conversations. Kap, as sports fans call him, is biracial and was adopted and raised by white people alongside white siblings, which gives depth to his decision to make this protest for civil rights; a move he considered for a while and after consulting his family.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kap said in a NFL Media interview. “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.”

His action has inspired many of us to take a closer look at the poem called “Defense of Fort M’Henry” that serves as the lyrics to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and its author Francis Scott Key, who turns out to have been a bigoted asshat. To be fair, he did advocate for people to be nicer to slaves, but he wasn’t against slavery, and he thought black people were intellectually inferior. Swell guy.

My friend Kyle gave me a history lesson on Mr. Key and the racism tucked in the stanzas we don’t pay attention to in the National Anthem. Apparently, Key was part of a regiment that had its ass handed to it during the War of 1812 by a group of former slaves turned Marines. Key was apparently so bitter about the experience that he wrote these Marines into a poem, as you do. “No refuge could save the hireling and slave,” wrote Key in the third stanza. “From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” (As you can see, Key was adept at revisionist history, which would have made him a prime candidate for president had he lived in 2016.)

Perhaps we can look beyond this history. We can hope if Key lived in a different time, he would have had different thoughts. We can put our full concentration on the one lovely stanza we sing. Still, Kap’s point will remain: The promises reflected in the National Anthem are not being fulfilled. I get it, and now when I stand for the National Anthem, I’ll also be contemplating his right to sit.

Kyle posited the question: “What would happen if this was a gay man taking this stand?” I had no answer, he had no answer, but it still makes me wonder. More to the point, Kyle went on, “Why aren’t all oppressed people coming together as a coalition to rise up against the hatred?” Ironically, I think homophobia and racism within oppressed groups is to blame to a certain extent.

“The white cracker who wrote the National Anthem knew what he was doing,” Belize says in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. “He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it.” A point well made, of course, but there are times when accurately hitting that high note doesn’t matter. It’s when we’re in a stadium, or other public setting, singing it at the top of our lungs, together.

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