Dear Mr. Kaepernick,
Well, you have our attention. You have said that your gesture to kneel, not stand, for the national anthem is meant to draw attention to the racial injustice and police brutality still evident in our country.
Your simple act has unleashed an unending torrent of advice. You should stand to honor those in the Armed Services. You should continue to kneel because you have the right to do this as an American. You should apologize to police officers. You should find another way to make your point. You should stop corrupting the youth.
I don’t have advice for you, but rather an observation to share. Your actions have forced us to do something as a nation that we haven’t done for a long time, maybe never. And that is to pay attention to the words that we say and the phrases that we sing.
Many religions warn us about the danger of speaking without thinking. The New Testament offers the not-so-cheery thought that we will have to answer someday for every careless word we say. Buddhism maintains that speaking gently and sincerely is an essential part of the path to enlightenment.
Mr. Kaepernick, your kneeling has forced all of us who stand during the national anthem to ask ourselves if we are aware of what we are singing and if we believe those words, especially the phrase describing our country as “the land of the free.”
The anthem was written by Francis Scott Key in 1812, while slavery was both legal and expanding. Our country was hardly the land of the free for African-Americans of that time.
The anthem was written while our nation was forcing Native Americans off their lands, so the USA wasn’t the land of the free for them.
The anthem was written more than 100 years before women could vote, so the USA wasn’t the land of the free for half of its population.
Of course, Mr. Kaepernick, your kneeling gesture isn’t trying to remind us of embarrassing history lessons. You are asking if this country is the land of the free today for all her people.
I don’t think Native peoples living on reservations in poverty, with high unemployment and with high rates of alcoholism and adolescent suicide would say they are free of despair.
I doubt also if women, many of whom confess to having been sexually attacked, harassed in the workplace and feeling unsafe walking down their own street at night would say they are free. As the singer Nina Simone once remarked, “I would like to live one day without fear.”
And I am quite sure few African-Americans who report being pulled over by police without apparent cause or being accused of crimes because they resemble a known criminal would say they are free of harassment.
To make these observations is to bring down the wrath of those who say that our country is so much freer than other societies. That’s true.
In Russia, a person who carries a sign that says anything negative about Putin will spend three to five years in jail. In Saudi Arabia, women are still trying to earn the right to drive cars. In Pakistan, a person can be arrested for being a member of the “wrong” Muslim sect. Palestinians can be detained at Israeli checkpoints three to four times as they try to drive to a hospital. The list goes on and on.
But is it enough for our country to accept that we are freer than others in the world? I don’t think so.
Your refusal, Mr. Kaepernick, to stand and glibly sing the national anthem reminds me of the demand of Martin Luther King Jr. In numerous speeches, he argued that America, as great as our country is, still has not lived up to the promises found in our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.
I have a feeling that your simple kneeling gesture is your way of asking the same question — are we the land of the free, or do we still have work to do to guarantee freedom for everyone?