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Last week, students returned to classes after a summer laced with mainstream political, racial, and social headlines. On the first day for my freshmen students, the first sentence I said was: “Please stand for The Star Spangled Banner.” Afterward I asked: “Why did you all stand?" General responses: “It’s out of respect for America…We've always been told to.” When I asked them to elaborate, none could.
On the second day, I asked them to stand again. I told them that – until a student within each class can clearly articulate why they chose to express themselves the way they did when the anthem was played – I would continue to start each class with [it]. After teaching a lesson centered on the news coverage of San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest, and the roles that patriotism, nationalism, and freedoms of speech and protest, choice, individualism and collectivism have in America—they caught on.
On the third day, two classes had all students stand for the song; two classes had the majority stand and a few sit; one class had all students sit. But for each class, students clearly articulated why they personally stood or sat, and the context of how their action tied to the Constitution, social protest, respect, and free will in America. Afterward, they gave their classmates a round of applause.
As an African-American, the divided response on Kaepernick has been déjà vu to see in our nation. As a high school U.S. History educator, this teachable, living moment is new for my students. We reside in a country founded on the principle of free choices and will, due to the results of civil disobedience and violent protesting; (actions that were deemed divisive, ill-advised, and ungracious). Such demonstrations – conducted by the likes of George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Jefferson – were condemned as essentially treasonous toward a British Parliament that provided them with perceived rights. For those founders and fighting patriots, however, such rights were laced with repressiveness.
For 200+ years, this nation has evolved into an entity that prides itself in patriotism and nationalism, via our laws, pledges, anthems, anniversaries, and symbols. In addition, we have slowly, surely, progressed toward the ideals of respect, support, and love for all creeds.
As a nation, when an issue reminds us of our lingering historic systemic (i.e., racism), we recognize the ugly, factual record of brutality that still hurts our American brothers and sisters. And, if the multitude of critics since Kaepernick’s sitdown is any indication, many resort to exercising our freedom of speech...laced with ridicule, citizenship denouncement, dismissal, and loyalty interrogation.
When a neighbor is hurting, that is when Americans should exercise how to strategize in resolving the message, and not dissolving the messenger. When social protest occurs, we have a tendency to revisit (and later regret) our ostracizing those who utilized the same playbook that the founders did – for using the same playbook that serves to hold America accountable in being better. It was created by leaders, protected by armed services, and amended by the people whenever/anytime/every time social issues hinder our ability to have unquestionable security at home.
I do not know Mr. Kaepernick, nor am I a fan of his team (a Washington, D.C. fan, actually). Yet, his display became an ideal tone-setter for my students this year.
At the end of the fourth day, before each class was dismissed, I asked: "What was the original cause for the protest?" After no response in four out of the five classes, I told them. In one class, however, a student perfectly responded with this gem: "Police brutality was why he chose to sit. But, that’s the ‘grayness’ in between the ‘red, white, and blue’ that you said is a part of America that we tend to not talk about. Because some people choose to see or not see that gray. And that’s what causes us to argue a lot: talking about the red, white, and blue, without ever addressing that grayness.”