Colin Kaepernick's brave decision: An open letter to the 49ers quarterback

"You will now be mentioned in the ranks with other courageous athletes like the late great Muhammad Ali ..."

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 2, 2016 12:53AM (EDT)

Colin Kaepernick   (Reuters/Jake Roth)
Colin Kaepernick (Reuters/Jake Roth)

Dear Brother Kaepernick,

I could only imagine the repetitive thump of vomitous noise you are hearing from the racist parasites that hinder American growth. So much that maybe you questioned your decision — I hope not, but if you did, I’d like to say that we are proud you chose to sit out again and that the people are with you.

I don’t speak for every person of color, nor do I try to; however, as a community activist, professor, and writer, I have a firsthand experience in dealing with some of the victims you sided with when you sat the anthem out — through dealing with police brutality, struggling to navigate through this racist system, and drying the tears of Baltimore residents who had to watch Freddie Gray’s murderers go free. Often the fight feels like a hopeless nightmare, but the work so many of us activists are doing in an effort to enhance social relations has just been elevated by your brave decision. My time in modern activism has taught me not to rely on professional athletes or entertainers in general, and you changed that.

Don’t get it twisted, we will certainly welcome any high profile help that we can get, but I understand that over 95% of these predominantly black-stacked teams have white owners who don’t understand what its like to be black in America, probably don’t care, and have benefited from the racist legacy attached to the American flag. They have a vested interest in patriotism and nationalism, as it has played a key role in their businesses, their families, the billions of dollars they make. Anything against the ideologies that are directly connected to the money is criminal, and no endorsement-seeking athlete wants to be seen as a criminal or traitor, they just want to get paid for their talents, as they should.

I also respect the professional athletes who understand these issues, but don’t want to ruffle any feathers because they use their money to bring about systemic change in a different way, which is also valuable. Either way, your decision is monumental and you will now be mentioned in the ranks with other courageous athletes like the late great Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Craig Hodges, John Carlos, and Tommy Smith. All of you are honorable and took huge gambles just to be on the right side of history, regarding morality and representing the plight of your people. And Colin, you are also on the right side of history by boycotting the anthem, as it wasn’t intended for black people when it was created by Francis Scott Key, a slave owner in 1814.

I explained his role in the toxic legacy of the song in my book, "The Beast Side," published last year: “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.

Jackson’s lie was followed by 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."

This essay alone brought me hundreds of death threats and cost me money, and some employment opportunities that I really needed at the time it was published, but it was the right thing to do and I wouldn’t change a word. Hopefully your boycott will be followed by more public figures taking a stand and pushing to truly make this country a better place. The other day I saw a funny meme with a picture of that clown Donald Trump spewing hate about America not being great and receiving love from the same people ripping you for being brave, in our nation of double standards — and that’s the problem.

Too many Americans act like loving this country means never criticizing this country and that’s just stupid. Blindly praising a flag and not acknowledging the problems that exist is the most un-American thing a person can do. When did challenging our country to be better become anti American? That same mentality is responsible for our country lagging in education, healthcare, life expectancy — we are just claiming to be the greatest without doing the work.

James Baldwin once wrote, "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." We change flat tires and put cast on broken arms in this country — we fix problems. So why are so many of our citizens suffering without notice? If you truly love America, you’d challenge it and all it’s flaws until it was a place where equality truly exists, that’s what you are doing and that’s what being great is all about.

Thank you again for choosing the people, we salute you.

One Love,

D. Watkins

Below, watch D. Watkins chat with former 1st round draft pick, ex NFL player turned activist Aaron Maybin about Colin Kaepernick, art, and the responsibility that comes with having a platform.

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By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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