What really symbolizes freedom for African-Americans?
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Recently there has been much debate over the symbols that represent us as a nation and tell the tale of the freedoms we enjoy. Though I stand firmly behind the right of Colin Kaepernick and his peers to protest white supremacy and oppression, I very intentionally chose not to enter into a debate over symbolism.

I have always felt that there is real work to be done and substantive discussions to be had, and that we shouldn’t get trapped trying to prove what we all know has existed since at least 1619: that people of color are oppressed in this land. However, my opinion on the importance of symbols of freedom was altered on Saturday evening when I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The museum is unlike any other. Its modern design adds to its regality and it seems to elucidate the entire area at night. The Washington Monument sits in the background and appears to be peeking over the shoulder of the building from Constitution Avenue entrance.

Once inside, three generations of my family slowly peered through the halls in amazement at the artifacts that had been gathered that tell the story of our country from a perspective rarely heard or at the very least, seldom privileged over the “land of the free” myth. There we saw our family’s donation: The Freedom Papers of Joseph Trammell, as well as the handmade tin box he carried them in.

As I look at the handwritten document, complete with the Loudoun County, Virginia seal, I immediately became emotional. It wasn’t the American Flag that gave my uncle Joseph Trammell his God-given right to freedom. It was that delicate sheet of paper, that he maintained all of his life.

I couldn’t imagine the anxiety with which he cared for them. If he lost them, damaged them, or they were stolen, it could have meant separation from his family and a lifetime of bondage. He could not have left his home without them. When I stared at the papers, I wanted to put my hand over my heart and acknowledge his sacrifice. This was a symbol that represented my freedom and those who struggled for it, more than any flag.

In the museum, you also see Harriet Tubman’s white shawl. Tubman, in my opinion is unequivocally the greatest American that has ever lived. No other American has lived up to the ideals this country says it stands for like she did during her amazing life. She not only lifted hundreds of people out of the vicious grip of slavery, she served her country honorably as a scout for the Union army.

Later in life, Tubman donated land in upstate New York for poor and elderly Blacks. Instead of saluting her service to this country and to humanity, there are many who oppose her inclusion on our currency. GOP nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSasse: Trump shouldn't dignify Putin with Helsinki summit Top LGBT group projects message onto Presidential Palace in Helsinki ahead of Trump-Putin summit Hillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' MORE called putting Tubman on the $20 bill an act of “pure political correctness.” (http://www.vox.com/2016/4/21/11477568/20-bill-harriet-tubman-party-alexander-hamilton)

Harriet Tubman was beaten viciously as a slave with an iron, a violent act that many believe resulted in a traumatic brain injury causing her to experience seizures. She still served her country. Mr. Trump deferred from military service, not because he had an ideological disagreement or a serious, debilitating accident, but because he had bone spurs in his feet. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/02/us/politics/donald-trump-draft-record.html)

My great-great uncle served his country in WWII and saluted the American Flag. However, he was told to stand far back while white soldiers were served their food. Donald Trump and sports commentator Paul Finebaum have both excoriated Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the latter saying that blacks are not oppressed. (http://www.rawstory.com/2016/09/this-espn-commentator-insists-that-the-us-is-not-oppressing-black-people/)

Finebaum and Trump are both old enough to remember the Civil Rights struggle. Finebaum is from Memphis, Tennessee where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed. If men like this really believed in freedom, they would salute the and cover their hearts for the symbols that represent liberty for all Americans. Those symbols are within the walls of the Smithsonian’s NMAAHC.

It is silly not to acknowledge that from 1776 to at least 1965, the American Flag did not represent freedom for all Americans, not even all veterans. The first man to shed blood for this country was Crispus Attucks, a black man. My uncle came home from WWII but could not eat in the same restaurants, stay in the same hotels, drink from the same fountains, or use the same restrooms as white Virginians, even if he were in uniform.

For many African Americans, it is difficult to rebrand the American Flag and the national anthem. Our symbols of freedom are held behind glass in Washington, D.C., as well as many landmarks and homes scattered around the country. Historically, African American veterans fought for full freedom and citizenship, the kind that eluded Attucks, Tubman, Trammell, and my great-great uncle Charlie Clark.

The amount of money, prestige, or perceived opportunities Kaepernick and others have is irrelevant. My grandfather was an Ivy League educated professor, who still had to bear the shame of explaining to his two young sons why they had been denied service at a southern hamburger stand. Trammell was said to be “free”, but did not have the opportunities or rights that his white neighbors had.

Those who challenge Kaepernick’s actions because he has white parents and grew up in middle class community are missing the point. His protest is not only for himself, it is for the African American and Latino youth whose constitutional right to equal education is compromised by a preschool to prison pipeline, for those immigrants who sit in private immigration detention centers, for black and brown people who pay high interest rates, have longer prison sentences, and stopped more often by police.

Perhaps the NFL, which is close to 70% Black, should play “Lift Every Voice” side by side with the “Star Spangled Banner”.

I wonder how many fans who enjoy watching African American athletes play, would stand and cover their hearts?

Dr. Jason Nichols is a full-time lecturer in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland-College Park and the current editor-in-chief of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture, the first peer-reviewed journal of hip-hop studies.


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