Screw the national anthem

After what happened in Ferguson, I can't pretend the promise of that song extends to a black man like me

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 30, 2014 11:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Rich Addicks)
(AP/Rich Addicks)

I hit a basketball game the other day. Hundreds packed into the stands and around the court as the DJ silenced the music. A bouncy, colorful dude approached center-court and requested that we stand for the national anthem. A delicate teenage Whitney Houston type approached the mic.

Everyone popped up ⎯ blacks and whites alike, all with straight backs and erect necks ⎯ their right palms Velcroed to their hearts. Military silence blanketed the crowd as the little girl blessed us all with her voice.

I stayed seated and just played on my iPhone during her entire performance. Some people looked at me, I yawned in their direction, stretched in my seat and looked back at them. I was itching for someone to say something stupid like, “Pay some respect. Stand for the anthem.” So I could’ve broke my mug down and yelled, “Man, fuck you and the anthem!”

I would’ve proudly hollered that at the top of my lungs because obviously I don’t fit the mold. Even though I was born in America and my ancestors built its infrastructure for free ⎯ I’m not a part of the “Our” when they sing, “Our flag was still there!” I feel like the “Our” doesn’t include blacks, most women, gays, trans and poor people of all colors.

And sadly our nation reminds us every day.

Some may reject the anthem because Francis Scott Key sang for freedom while enslaving blacks. His hatred even bled into the lyrics of the elongated version of "The Star Spangled Banner" you won’t hear at a sporting event. The third stanza reads …

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave, From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”

That line was basically a shot at the slaves who agreed to fight with the British in exchange for their freedom. Who wouldn’t want freedom, and how could he not understand them opting out for a better life?

A life free of mass whippings, rape and unpaid labor. Andrew Jackson caught wind of slaves agreeing to fight with the British in exchange for freedom and made a similar promise to thousands of slaves in Louisiana. He told them if they protected Louisiana, they could be free after the war. Well, we won the war, and then Jackson reneged on the deal. He went on to be president while the brave Africans who fought with honor went back into servitude.

Others reject our national anthem for more contemporary reasons. Generation after generation of broken promises. It’s 200 years later and America still enslaves a tremendous amount of its population through poverty, lack of opportunity, false hopes of social mobility, unfair educational practices and the prison industrial complex.

I agree with those people, and I realized the horrific way our nation treats its minorities and underclass way back in my formative years; however, through all of that, I still gave America the benefit of the doubt. I still tried to give our nation credit for the progress we made in race relations, but fuck it, this Mike Brown incident is the last straw.

Mike Brown was that 18-year-old black in Ferguson, Missouri, who was murdered for no reason other than the color of his skin. Brown was the perfect kid on paper ⎯ he graduated high school, never been to prison, was set to go off to college and even put his hands up to show his murderer, officer Darren Wilson, that he was unarmed.

And still, Darren Wilson gunned him down as if he was inhuman, and did not deserve freedom or the right to live ⎯ like the slaves Key sang about 200 years before. To top that, Wilson left his dead body on the sizzling concrete, in the dead of summer for four hours.

Darren Wilson, the coward who performed this heinous act, the coward whose name the police department protected for weeks, has yet to be, and probably will not be, charged because of white privilege in America ⎯ land of the fee and home of the slave.

This is the same country that jailed Michael Vick two years for killing dogs and let George Zimmerman walk after using an innocent black teen for target practice. The same culture that would allow people to justify the shootings of Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo with a straight face. Beating Rodney King was legal at one point, right?

America has become a place that makes up bullshit sickness like “affluenza” to protect rich murders, the home of Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, community lynchings. Remember the Jena 6. America did the Scottsboro Boys dirty too; they smashed Lil’ Bobby Hutton, right? What was his America like? Probably the same as Marissa Alexander’s because the Zimmerman laws didn’t apply to her.

They “Radio Raheem”-ed Eric Garner here too. Remember plantation slavery? The four little girls, vagrancy laws for blacks, prison slavery and murder on murder …

They popped King, they popped Medgar, and they popped Fred Hampton. Now that there are no more black leaders to kill, they are popping kids like Mike Brown.

If Brown was white, he would be taking English 101, posting selfies or doing homework for some philosophy class right now. Instead, he has joined a mile-long list of unarmed black teens who were murdered by remorseless, badge-wearing, bloodthirsty police officers who identify as patriots and obviously have no regard for black life.

I refuse to salute a flag or honor a song promoted by a country that allows these tragedies to happen over and over again. Fuck a pointless statement from some politician and double-fuck anyone who would ever fire a rubber bullet at a peaceful protester.

I’m a teacher and all of my students look like Mike Brown, or Jonathan Farrell, or Ramarley Graham, or Renisha McBride, or Aiyana Jones, or Trayvon Martin, or Tyisha Miller, or Kathryn Johnson, or Tarika Wilson, or Oscar Grant, or Yvette Smith, or John Crawford. What should I tell them?

Should I say that these incidents were mistakes so they won't be scared to leave their homes? Or should I be honest and say that according to Ghetto Storm, 313 (many of which were unarmed) black people were murdered by the police in 2012 ⎯ that’s one black life every 28 hours. And tell them that local police are involved in 400 killings per year and that USA Today reports that 18 percent of those victims were black and under the age of 21. I choose the latter.

I tell them to document the police in their neighborhoods with their camera phones because bloodthirsty cowards like Darren Wilson have closets full of guns, and are eager to use them on innocent people that look just like you.

And then I tell them Darren Wilson doesn’t represent all white people or cops in general, but their many active officers just like him. I also tell them that we are not perfect and our country is not perfect, but we can change if we wanted to.

America has enough power and influence to strengthen race relations; however, at this particular time in history, our country is not trying and "The Star Spangled Banner" is not for us and we as minorities can't afford to forget that.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

MORE FROM D. Watkins