Ask ten people what it means to be an American, and you’ll get ten different answers. Some of these experiences are more poignant and enduring than others, and certainly some are more worthwhile. That worth is especially clear comparing the stories of Colin Kaepernick and the father of Keith Woods, NPR’s vice president of diversity.
Kaepernick might be sitting down to protest race relations in America (and raise his profile while he faces getting demoted on the field), but Verdun P. Woods stood for the same reason. He stood during the National Anthem as a veteran who joined the military when it was still segregated. He enlisted to serve, protect, and risk death for a country that offered him fewer options then because of the color of his skin. Then he came home and got a job with the U.S. Postal Service.
Verdun Woods taught his son, through examples and actions, to sing loudly, sing proudly, and stand before the flag during the National Anthem, Keith Woods says:
Had the San Francisco quarterback refused to stand for the national anthem in my father’s presence, Daddy would have fixed him in a stare that could freeze the blood in your veins. Then, to no one in particular — but to everyone within earshot — he’d give the young man a two-sentence lesson in patriotic etiquette.
‘You stand during the national anthem,’ he’d say, punctuating his words with fire. ‘People died for that flag.’
…If I could ask my father, I believe he’d say that he sang because he earned that right. I believe he sang to affirm a citizenship denied him through housing discrimination, police brutality, economic inequities and educational apartheid. Does that make him more or less like Kaepernick?
Each person, family, and community has its own distinct set of formative experiences that create the emotional reactions to our National Anthem. From celebrities pondering if it’s just a song, to athletes with floundering careers sitting it out, to veterans singing it loudly and proudly because they fought and others died for that right, our formation changes how we express our patriotism or lack thereof.
We’re a complex melting pot of a nation, and the National Anthem could be the glue that helps stick us together during tough times. Instead, some use it to push agendas and shift focus to pet causes. Fringe and activist opinions have their place, but that place shouldn’t be where many Americans go to specifically get away from divisive actions. The average person, sitting in the stands, a beer in one hand and a hot dog in the other, wants to watch the game and forget pending bills, job insecurities, and worldwide political drama, and just be entertained.
Social changes aren’t some one and done event. Celebrities often make terrible cultural ambassadors. There’s something to be said for letting entertainment, which football and music firmly are, just be enjoyable. There are lots of conversations and protests about race, violence, and politics happening. Wanting an open conversation on our anthem is fine. However, there’s a time and a place, and football ain’t it.
The National Anthem is our nation’s song. Other songs could well represent all of us, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or “America the Beautiful,” but this is the one we have now. Respecting the flag, and our nation, means respecting our ability to have these conversations. The right to stand up is one we should cherish.