Recently, I found myself in a conversation with a friend about the Colin Kaepernick controversy. My friend expressed her outrage over his “taking the knee” at NFL games. As a professor of literature whose job is to teach people skills in reading figurative language, metaphor, and symbols, I disagreed.
My friend defined kneeling in this NFL context as unpatriotic and declared it to be an act of the utmost disrespect for soldiers who fought and continue to fight under the American flag. Her perspective is not unique. President Trump himself shares her view. On Sept. 17, 2017, he tweeted “”If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem.”
But to read the act of kneeling as defiant or disrespectful is to ignore how the sign of kneeling operates in our culture—in most cultures. When we read signs and symbols, we do not understand them in isolation. They derive meaning from communities rather than from any one individual’s solipsistic imagination. To understand the sign of a football player kneeling instead of standing, we need to have a sense of what kneeling means for the community in which that act takes place. We need to consider how the symbol operates in relation to governments, our religion(s), our species. Examining these contexts reveals that we kneel during prayers, at the altar, when receiving a blessing, when in the presence of God. A citizen of a kingdom kneels before the monarch. A man begging for his life might kneel before the executioner. All of these examples show kneeling as indicating respect and devotion. We have to look at other postures to understand how we express defiance and disrespect.
If my word on the subject is not good enough for you, consider the words of Nate Boyer, the former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawk who convinced Kaepernick to get off the bench during the National Anthem and kneel because it was more “respectful” than simply sitting. Just eight days prior to Trump’s aforementioned tweet, Michel Martin, a National Public Radio host for the show “All Things Considered,” interviewed Boyer about this conversation.
“[K]neeling’s never been . . . seen as a disrespectful act,” Boyer told Martin during the interview. “I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects.”
Kaepernick’s comments before he heard Boyer’s advice suggest kneeling has changed his protest. On August 27, just a few days before Kaepernick’s conversation with Boyer, NBC.com’s Steve Wyche reported the football player as saying “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-protest-of-national-anthem).
When Kaepernick chose to kneel a few days after making this comment, his stance towards the flag changed from a refusal to “show pride” in it to one of submission to what Americans understand the flag to represent—submission to our ideals rather than our reality.
Boyd’s NPR interview states a clear case for reading kneeling at the NFL stadium as an exercise in the vital project of American democracy. Kaepernick’s protest honors the flag by calling attention to it, he notes. Even those angered by Kaepernick’s “taking the knee,” he said, have become more conscious of what the flag signifies.
“The people in the stands that are upset for [Kaepernick] . . . sitting or kneeling or whatever . . . are now taking the time to really focus when that anthem’s being played in the stadium,” Boyd explained, “where before, I don’t think a lot of people really cared.”
Instead of defying the flag and the nation, then, Kaepernick’s protest against violence and injustice fulfills its mission. Proclaiming ourselves to be “the home of the free and brave” does not make it so. The American people have always existed in a state of becoming. We have not arrived at the realization of our aspirations as a nation. Our collective aspiration to become a free land type requires brave citizens—such as Kaepernick—who point out the difference between an image of equality and its realization, the distance between reality and our American dreams.