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Kneeling to Stand

Recently I assigned my students a reading and writing assignment centered around the movement that has evolved from Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel in protest during the National Anthem. I've repeatedly reminded them that Kaepernick is not protesting the flag nor the Anthem. He is protesting the oppression and mistreatment of blacks and people of color that has been long-standing in this country. He is simply protesting during the singing of the National Anthem. Many of them will probably continue to insist that his protest is about our nation's flag or anthem. They, like many of their fellow Americans, will miss the point.

As I read articles regarding this issue, I find myself paying attention to the NFL in a way that I never have before. My disinterest in professional sports is not to disparage what players do in the leagues. Sports have, simply, never been my interest. Colin Kaepernick's protest, however, has slowly penetrated my world. Not surprisingly, that interest increased when I heard of Trump's remarks toward players who kneel.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I've come full circle to why the concept of professional sports troubles me. Trump's response to Kaepernick, or any other player speaking out, just smacks of the age-old ideas of ownership of the black body. Numerous white males own these NFL and NBA leagues which means, in essence, they own the players of those leagues. I truly feel that Trump's advocacy of firing these players who protest has everything to do with this idea of ownership. He was reminding his white male "friends" of the power they hold over these black men.

I think that this is exemplified in the way that Kaepernick was blackballed. Before Trump made his remarks, the NFL had found a way to punish Kaepernick. Their mode of punishment was a public reminder that the role of black players is to entertain their predominately white audiences, not to protest the mistreatment of fellow black citizens. By protesting during games, players asked viewers to acknowledge race in an arena where most people deny that race exists. Yet, racial disparities dominate the NFL. Only in football, basketball and prison is the black body such a clear object of ownership.

One of my students, like many other critics, felt that Kaepernick's paycheck precludes his right to speak out and obviously men like Trump believe the same thing. But isn't that why Kaepernick spoke out? He had the platform and the money to do so. That actually reminds me of W.E.B Dubois' theory of the Talented Tenth. Though Dubois' theory referred to the college educated reaching back to help lift up the masses, I think that Dubois would consider Kaepernick's stance as part of giving back to our communities. When we find our moments of success, be they through education or by other means, it is our duty to help all voices be heard. That, I think, is the crux of what Kaepernick was trying to achieve. He didn't want his fortune and fame to only benefit him. He used his fame to bring notice to an issue that has always kept America from fulfilling the promise inherent in her flag and her Anthem.

Blackballing Kaepernick only highlights the troubled relationship that America's white citizens have often had with her black ones. Slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration has always been about owning the black body and silencing the black voice. The NBA's recent ban on players kneeling during the National Anthem reflects that same need to control: ownership and silencing. The history of forcing black Americans to accept the institutional racism that has plagued America since its founding cannot and will not change unless more people of color use their platforms to expose the inequities in American society.

Movements often begin with one person and one voice. It may have taken the ignorance of a president to make other players take a knee like Kaepernick, but let's never lose sight of why he protested. Young black men being gunned down in the streets should never be an acceptable policing policy. Allowing their killers to go free because they hide behind a badge is not the definition of serving and protecting. These young black males are citizens too, and they deserve to be served and protected as well.

And if Kaepernick was willing to use his body and voice to highlight oppressive practices, then he should be praised not punished. He did what many white citizens don't want any black person, particularly black men to do, own their bodies and own their voices. I don't know about you, but I am definitely supporting Kaepernick's "kneeling to stand." Not only is slavery outdated, but slavery has been rejected. And when we own our bodies and our voices, we better make that self-ownership work--not only for ourselves but for the good of ALL American citizens. 

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