Sunday, September 18, 2016

Patriot Day

This September 11th I’m thinking about a football player who sits during the national anthem.

People are so angry, and I guess I get it. But let’s review our history for a minute. America was founded because a group of young upstarts felt the country they called their own wasn’t seeing them. It didn’t recognize them or acknowledge the abuses that plagued their daily lives. The symbols and leaders of their nation — the crown, the king — had let them down, had no interest in helping them. And so these hotheads decided enough was enough, and that they needed to do something about it.

Sitting during the national anthem is seen as disrespectful by many. But while Kaepernick may not be a Jefferson or a Washington, you can’t say what he’s doing is un-American. It’s more American than apple pie, and far sweeter. It’s freedom, my friends, pure and simple. What generations have fought and died for. It’s the right of an average person to look at the nation that’s supposed to have their back and to say, “We can be better than this. Something’s got to change.”

This September 11th I’m remembering being a substitute teacher on yearbook signing day, and reading what one eighth grade boy wrote in his fellow student’s annual.

Picture the scene. We’re at a small Christian school in the heart of the Bible belt, and I’m a substitute teacher for eighth grade English on yearbook signing day. Oddly enough, some of the students ask me to sign their books — most likely caught up in the giddy rush of premature nostalgia that comes with such occasions. In this group of about fifty kids, there are only two black boys. One of these boys signs a girl’s yearbook then hands it to me at her request. I look down at the page where he just wrote. Instead of a name or “have a great summer,” there are just two words scrawled in marker: I’m black.

I stare at them for a second. It hits me like a punch to the gut. I’m looking at this phrase, stupidly wondering what it means. Yes, of course he is black. That’s a fact, just like it’s a fact that I have blue eyes, or a fact that the girl whose yearbook this is has red hair. But I don’t get treated like an entirely different class of human being because I have blue eyes, and this girl isn’t immediately judged as being a certain way because she has red hair. It’s never been an identity we’ve had to claim, or a stigma we’ve had to struggle against.

I’m black.

Is it celebration? Defiance? A proud declaration — this is who I am, this is important to me? A reminder — this is who I am, but not all I am? I don’t know. It really doesn’t matter what I think. He’s a funny, sweet kid with a bright future ahead of him, and he wants us to know that he’s black.

This September 11th, I’m remembering what happened 15 years ago on this day, and that it happened to all of us.

When the Twin Towers crashed down 15 years ago, you know what we all were? Humans. Much has already been made of this fact. We weren’t our race or gender, our political parties or religious ideologies. When you’re pulling a human being out of the ash and rubble, it doesn’t matter if they’re an Ivy League graduate or an illegal immigrant or the gay barista from the local coffee joint. It doesn’t matter if they’re someone you’d normally spit at or rail against, or someone you’d call your best bud. In that moment, they’re alive, and so are you, and that’s all that matters. Helping each other and staying alive.

We lost too many people that day. People from all across these various spectrums we use to divide or categorize our humanity. Today we mourn them. But it’s important that as we’re mourning them we don’t stop seeing them. Not just what they represent, but who they really were. We can and must celebrate both what unites us and what makes us unique.

September 11th reminds us that if we are truly united, when something bad happens to some of us it should hurt all of us. We shouldn’t turn a blind eye and insist it isn’t our problem because it doesn’t directly affect us. Sometimes that threat to our fellow citizens isn’t as blatant as a plane crashing into a building. Sometimes it’s far more insidious, and can come from within.

This September 11th I’m an expat American who finds herself far from home, who glories in the crazy contradiction that is our broken and beautiful nation, and who wants us to do better.

America has never been great. There, I said it. It’s been plagued with slavery, injustice, persecution and violence nearly every step of the way.

America has always been great. How could it not be? Peopled with citizens who think, challenge, try, dare, explore, create, and rise above despite the mess we are and always have been.

This is why I know down to my bones that “make America great again” is a lie. That isn’t what we should be striving for.

The truly shining moments in our history were the ones where radically different members of society came together to work with unity toward a common purpose. Why can’t we do that now? Why can’t our purpose be to ensure that black people in this country — especially young black men — no longer have to live in fear of being falsely persecuted and brutally gunned down by those who are meant to serve and protect?

“Make America whole again.” Unity. That’s what I find myself longing for more than anything on this Patriot Day.

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