Colin Kaepernick, Kneeling, and the Meaning of Gratitude A reflection on resistance, race, and popular culture.

 

 

“If I say things are awful,

It might just be unlawful.”

     —Mose Allison, “I’m Not Talking” (released 1964)

 

The coming of Bebop in the 1940s changed not only the structure, musical nature, and creative intention of jazz. It changed the way jazz musicians related to their audiences because it changed the way the musicians saw themselves in relation to both their music and their society. Bebop was self-consciously and blatantly a musician’s music, a highly virtuosic display that the players were presenting to their audiences on the players’ terms, not the audiences.’ It was a creator-centered music. But more, it was a style of music created by black men who understood themselves not only artistically, but also politically, as being black men who were creating black music, often before white audiences. The players felt they needed to relate to these audiences in a certain way, to make the audiences aware of this change. Granted, a player like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie still approached his audiences with something of the sly humor of the old-style black entertainer, although he was, for a time, most critical of the great Louis Armstrong for being a “mere entertainer.” Most of these players did not make an effort “to entertain.” Trumpeter Miles Davis probably symbolized and embodied this new attitude more famously and strikingly than any other jazz musician of his cohort: ignoring his audience, frequently with his back turned toward them, unfriendly to hangers-on, critics, and aficionados, brooding, aloof, outspoken, intimidating, profane, at times, downright evil. Davis was the new breed, the new black male personality, the new “game face,” as it were, the birth of the cool. “I am not here to please,” Davis seemed to be saying by his demeanor, “I am here to play. And that is all I owe you, my playing, nothing else. I am not here to be liked.” As James Baldwin pointed out, “it [is] a great part of the American Negro’s education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people ‘like’ him.” And it is particularly the case that if black people are around whites, or find their livelihood dependent on whites (which most of us do), it is essential that they are likable. The Italian Americans among whom I grew up would always compliment me, my mother, and my sisters by saying that we were not “troublemakers.” When I heard this as a boy it would infrequently but perversely cross my mind that I wish we were.

To make a black person on his knees symbolize defiance is perhaps one of the singularly stunning feats in recent American racial history!  “I am a different kind of American and I do not disrespect the flag or the anthem; I respect them differently,” this gesture seems to say, which mirrors the Bebopper’s “I am not here to please. I am here to play. And that is all I owe you.”

In some ways, the current wave of African-American football players kneeling during the pre-game performance of the national anthem replicates the Bebop revolution that so changed the public persona of the black male jazz musician. Now it is black players demanding that their audiences, the press, even the owners, recognize that their attitude toward what they are doing as public performers is not the same as their white peers, or what many whites may wish for their attitude to be. Specifically, the kneeling itself, started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is a highly stylized political gesture. Kaepernick launched his protest by sitting but then changed to kneeling. It was perhaps more fitting for a football player to kneel, as kneeling figures in his sport: the player who catches the ball on a kickoff return may kneel in his own end zone if he thinks he cannot make a success return of more than 20 yards; a quarterback kneels in the closing seconds of a game if his team is ahead. It is called running out the clock. Kneeling is organically related to the physical reality of playing a football game, much more so than sitting (which one really does not want to do because it means you are sitting on the bench, not playing) and it was thus more natural for Kaepernick to do it. Kneeling gave his gesture of protest more of an aspect of poignancy, even made it an acknowledgement of something deeply tragic in the history of the United States that only a black person could truly understand and want to express in this way that seems to be deferential and mocking, determined and humble, reverential and revolutionary in the same instance. To make a black person on his knees symbolize defiance is perhaps one of the singularly stunning feats in recent American racial history! “I am a different kind of American and I do not disrespect the flag or the anthem; I respect them differently,” this gesture seems to say, which mirrors the Bebopper’s “I am not here to please. I am here to play. And that is all I owe you.” What has made the Kaepernick gesture so remarkable is that, unlike the Bebopper’s which was so genderized and so totalizing as a persona, the kneeling has caught on with women, teens, children, even some whites, and is simply an act, not a psychic recreation or reconstruction. Both the football players and the Beboppers are saying as well that they are not grateful for the attention of whites or for white admiration of their skills. This is an exchange system, as economists such as F. A. Hayek have told us. The Beboppers and the football players offer the best display of their skills and the audiences pays. That is the exchange. It might be said that this lack of gratitude was easier for black jazz musicians to express as they were performing for hipster audiences who were more likely to be amenable to such iconoclasm. But as the saying goes, people vote with their feet. When jazz became Bebop, an art music, it lost the dancers, the people who wanted the music’s main aim to be pleasing them. They all left to follow some other audience-centered music, and jazz lost a considerable share of the music market. Transformation did not come without a price, what the economists call “a tradeoff.” There is likely to be a tradeoff in football as well.

To be sure, the genuflection during the national anthem is something of a stunt of solidarity, a way for wealthy black athletes to show they are bonded with their fellow race men and women. But the gesture is not a mere contrivance as the athletes know that black life, in some instances still today, is precarious and they know this precariousness intimately. Moreover, is not our customary standing for the national anthem a demonstration, a ritual, of our solidarity as Americans? The genuflection does not deny this larger solidarity—which I do not think hardly any African American would ever wish to deny, the privilege of being permitted to be a part of it having been so dearly won—but simply distinguishes how black people see themselves figuring into it.  Far from being upset, one might think that most Americans would be grateful that black Americans have discovered such a benign and touchingly dignified way to express their self-consciousness about their curious status as Americans. It sure as heck beats rioting or crime or suicide, from every perspective. Creative despair and tough-minded hope is what the kneeling truly signifies.

It might be said that this lack of gratitude was easier for black jazz musicians to express as they were performing for hipster audiences who were more likely to be amenable to such iconoclasm. But as the saying goes, people vote with their feet. When jazz became Bebop, an art music, it lost the dancers, the people who wanted the music’s main aim to be pleasing them. 

Some have argued that athletes should not bring politics into sports, should not politicize the games, but the black athlete is a walking political symbol no matter how much some may attempt to hide this behind the supposed colorblind meritocracy of athletics. It is not black athletes who have politicized sports, it is rather sports that have politicized the presence of black athletes in a society which, because of its deeply racist history, has burdened black people with having to have their blackness mean something as blackness (against the whiteness of the whites) all the time. Even the attempts at de-politicizing sports is simply another way of politicizing it by making the baggage and achievement of the black athletes’ race invisible or requiring that it should be invisible so that everyone is comfortable with their presence. So it was with black jazz musicians before Bebop when they were both stigmatized and stereotyped by their race while also being made invisible, non-entities, because of it. All of this was done by turns to make white audiences comfortable.

It nearly goes without saying that the anthem demonstrations are proving bad for business, as many football fans strongly disapprove of them, the majority, in fact. (There is a significant number of people who do approve but overall the popularity of the sport is down.) A football player might reasonably think that there are better venues, or a better way of showing his displeasure with the state of things racial in the United States other than making a gesture while on the company’s time and in the company’s uniform, reducing the revenue of his sport which, after all, affect his salary and his well-being. To reduce the market worth of his sport reduces his own wealth and what he can contribute to the African-American community. Is not hurting his sport with a considerable segment of the paying white public rather like cutting his nose to spite his face? Is it not like the Samson complex, vividly and absurdly dramatized in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man when the narrator is trapped inside the electrical box being lobotomized? Every time he thought about destroying the box, he realized that he would also destroy himself.  Are not black players, black people themselves, so intricately enmeshed in the system in which they live, so implicated in it, that in trying to destroy it or upend it, do they not risk also severely damaging or destroying themselves? This was the argument some used who opposed the NAACP’s Missouri travel warning. Black people work in the tourism industry, too. Sticking to the Man in some ways becomes sticking it to oneself as a certain sort of complex dependency exists between the Man and those who want to stick it to him. And perhaps the players should not listen much to liberal-to-left-leaning sports writers and street activists who, in the first instance, want nothing more than a good story and, in the second, the opportunity to live vicariously through the athletes by having the athletes be what they want them to be and to exploit the athletes’ fame by radicalizing the athletes about their cause. Moreover, what sort of change can be wrought by a one-minute demonstration during the performance of the national anthem? Is this not just some showboating form of racial virtue signaling that is appealing because it is so easy to do?

Valid and sensibly skeptical as this view is, it misses three important points: first, the anthem demonstrations are partly about the ongoing strife that exists in all professional team sports between ownership and the players. Nowhere has this strife been fiercer than in the history of baseball, but it is present in all team sports which have their work stoppages and their fights over contracts and compensation. The players feel a need from time to time to assert their autonomy and their identity against the power of management. After all, the players are the show. As the old saying goes, no one goes to a football game to see the owners. In some ways, the anthem demonstrations are the players reminding the owners of this, as well as the fans. The fact that so many owners side with the demonstrating players, or at least loath to prevent them from demonstrating is, for the players, a victory for their rights as employees. Second, activist expression demands risk and it demands cost, as it should. It is only through risk and cost that the activist can convince the public that his or her devotion to the cause is genuine and the cause is indeed worth the public’s attention. Otherwise, without risk and cost, how would anyone really be able to distinguish the frivolous from the authentic? The demonstrating players have to risk some sort of disapproval in order for their gesture to be seen by supporters as being sincere and worthwhile. Third, it is necessary for players to show the public from time to time that they too are citizens and that they have a social dimension beyond their role as athletes. Every athlete is more than an athlete and at times it is good for the public to be reminded of this.

Activist expression demands risk and it demands cost, as it should. It is only through risk and cost that the activist can convince the public that his or her devotion to the cause is genuine and the cause is indeed worth the public’s attention. Otherwise, without risk and cost, how would anyone really be able to distinguish the frivolous from the authentic?

But to return to the subject of gratitude: one would hardly expect for the persecuted or, more accurately, those with a history of having endured persecution to be grateful when that persecution ends and is now universally condemned by the descendants of the persecutors. The persecuted’s attitude is always that they should never have been persecuted in the first place. So why should they be grateful when it stops or at least eases to a great extent? Why should they be grateful for having been given something they were denied when they should never have been denied in the first place? No one can rightfully expect gratitude under such circumstances.

But if we live in an age of redefinition, we also live in an age of overreaction. So much does the mass media rehash and rehearse and sensationalize every instance of injustice that is visited upon us as Americans that many of us have come to believe that we are living in, to borrow a phrase, “the worst of times and under the most unjust of dispensations.” The malfeasance of the police in Missouri, for instance, have many activists thinking that this is somehow Mississippi in 1950. All of us, black and white, men and women, owe gratitude for our good fortune that we are living by higher and better standards than all previous populations on this planet have. The world is not a good place, so the demonstrators tell us, and they are right. But it is a better place which they never seem willing to acknowledge because the world we live in is not the world we ought to live in. But what the demonstrators might want to consider, just as an antidote to hubris, is the possibility that the world we live in, imperfect as it is, may be better than we human beings deserve.

The world is not a good place, so the demonstrators tell us, and they are right. But it is a better place which they never seem willing to acknowledge because they think the world we live in is not the world we ought to live in. But what the demonstrators might want to consider, just as an antidote to hubris, is the possibility that the world we live in, imperfect as it is, may be better than we human beings deserve.

Many feel that Colin Kaepernick is a reinvention of Muhammad Ali, who was willing to sacrifice his boxing career in the 1960s by opposing the draft for religious reasons. The resistance may not have been entirely persuasive but it was sufficiently sincere and sufficiently dedicated to strike the public ultimately as being thought-provoking and even worthy of respect. Kaepernick may, in the end, personify his resistance as Ali did, (although I think Kaepernick could learn to display a bit more humor as Ali did which so disarmed and charmed many of his critics). Kaepernick, like Miles Davis, has every right as a black person not to show an ounce of gratitude to his audience for admiring his skill or for permitting him to perform. He has every right to have an attitude, to be a wrench in the American Dream Machine. But he does owe gratitude to be fortunate enough to perform in a sport where his protest has garnered him such attention and even, in some quarters, approbation, that he lives in a society where a large number of people think that the ability to throw a football is important. In the lottery of life, despite his blackness, he is luckier than he thinks he is. He ought not to forget that his life is still, for many, the stuff that dreams are made of.

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