I have not written in nearly a year. A lot of my ideas for essays come before I fall asleep, but since the current President was elected I awake to such unsettling news daily that I lose track immediately of what I hoped to write. Moreover, I lose faith in the point of writing at all. Ideally I should be writing about the Arts but even that seems trite considering the state of the nation and the world.
The night he was elected I started having night time panic attacks. I had never had a panic attack in my life. The America that I felt was on a relatively good path was getting wiped away. All was not perfect by any means but I thought our country had come so far and fought so hard for LGBTQ , women’s and minority rights. I thought maybe finally we were getting near a time when police would no longer be able to randomly kill off young black men and women. I even felt like resentment toward hispanic residents in the US had waned. Then last November happened.
Last Friday, that man, whose name will not be mentioned, once again spewed his racist views, this time aimed at Black professional football players by calling them “sons of bitches” for exercising their right of free speech by kneeling during the national anthem. I have seen the comments by conservative media which I find equally appalling. They are peddling the idea that these Black players have no rights because they are wealthy and they should basically just say “yes master” and be grateful for their work. Some pundits even referred to them as “those people’. Outrageous. Tell that to the billionaire-in-chief and his crony cabinet members who abuse our tax monies for use of private jets, and so on. How wrong they are. Money does not make morals and vice versa. It has nothing to do with the discussion. The idea is absurd and, yes, racist.
A couple years ago I helped the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library help celebrate the anniversary of the national anthem. I thought I was doing something patriotic. As a child of Maryland and Pennsylvania I had always been proud of Francis Scott Key, or more importantly of the Battle at Ft. McHenry in Baltimore. It was actually the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Ft. McHenry, where Key sat on a boat watching the battle, but as a national anthem it was not actually approved by congress until 1931 and since then the poem “The Star Spangled Banner” has been sung, ironically, to the tune of an old British drinking song only using the first verse of the original poem.
Until this week I did not realize that F.S. Key felt that black people were inferior. He was pro-slavery and mocked by abolitionists. I started to wonder just why this had not been part of my eduction growing up. It was literally whitewashed from childhood just as those statues of Confederate leaders were presented as impressive pieces of sculpture to me. I grew up near many Civil War battlefields and it never occurred to me, although my ancestors fought for the North and one died in the Confederate Prison Camp at Andersonville, that I should maybe question the existence of monuments touting the achievement of traitors to the Union.
Understanding what I do now, I struggle that I do not and cannot really know what it is like to be a black person in this country. I am saddened by what people of color, and any ethnic group for that matter, must endure. The subliminal and not so subliminal messages are appalling. I am ashamed to have lived this long and not fully realized any of this. I still can only imagine and empathize with my Black friends.
Now I must ask, what is the purpose of the National Anthem? Is it not time to choose a piece more exemplary of our county today? I know this discussion had arisen before but I know it prompted more about the war references in the poem than for the racist sentiment of the author. Up for grabs is whether the additional verses were racist but that is not the point. That anyone would find racism in the verse is really what matters. It is a poem after all, and each person has their own reaction to it based on their background and frame of reference. How about God Bless America, or America the Beautiful instead of this anthem that is hard to sing, hardly makes any sense and moreover comes from a time of extreme racism in our country?
I find it curious that at the opening of most classical music seasons in the US, the national anthem is played. I always enjoyed it more for the challenge of singing a lot of high and low notes but I never stopped to think of what I was saying any more than I did as a kid saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school or the random grace at the dinner table. I had memorized those things and that was all that mattered. (Who was not proud when they could say the Pledge from memory when the next kid couldn’t?) What does our anthem have to do with these events?
I have written a bit here on the Huff Post about African-American opera singers and what they have experienced both home and abroad. Just today I heard about a neighbor with an hispanic last name who was told by a white person that they were only allowed to be here because this white person allowed it. I am sickened and angered by this shameful behavior by white people. I cannot get my head around that way of thinking.
I was raised a Christian but this behavior does not fit any Christian values that I learned from the cradle. In the years before he died, my father a veteran of world war II was getting quite fed up with the message that he was not patriotic just because he was politically liberal-minded He was, after all, not only a veteran but a retired employee of the National Park Service and a United Methodist clergyman. Dad always used to joke that he saw someone that looked like him on the trolley; he has two eyes a nose and skin all over his face. There lies the truth of us all.
It has been a very hard few months for many. The heartache of the hurricanes and earthquakes put human frailty into perspective. The Cassini spacecraft mission ended last week by deliberately crashing onto Saturn. The pictures it left, especially the view of the earth from so far away, was humbling to say the least. (Take that you folks who believe the earth is flat and that the world was crated 4000 years ago.)
How could we feel so self-important to ignore mother nature and what we have done to our planet? We get the message from our President and majority leaders just how little they value the rest of all citizens, people in need; people of color; refugees, dreamers, our right to health care. What happened to human decency?
In my opinion, the extreme right has set the bar so high that it is blind and obstinate. Rigidity does not work. An attitude of moral superiority only leads to personal downfall. Ignorance is no real route to power. Knowledge is. I observe an unrealistic nostalgia for the past on the part of many of our leaders. I would assume they are thinking of a time pre-integration and pre-Viet Nam. It occurred to me that that nostalgic time - comfortable and hopeful for some - was the result of witnessing the horrors of the Nazi regime and the unfathomable, but very real, genocide it created. I want to believe that post WW II was a time of human decency motivated by these horrors, but then one remembers the McCarthy Committee on UnAmerican Activities. At the same time, segregation was rampant so it really was an imagined period of decency.
I am not a historian and certainly not an authority on anything but classical singing but I do believe in our Bill of Rights, the U.S.Constitution, human rights, in loving each other, living in a peaceful world that is not controlled by the constipated leaders, but by the intelligent ones.
I just finished watching Part Six of Ken Burns’ Viet Nam War documentary which left off in 1968. My parents cried all that spring. At an impressionable age I watched two leaders be stuck down for trying to do something good for us. It has been 50 years since Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered. I do not want their brave lives or the 50 years since and the work of so many to have been in vain. I remain proud to be an American but can only maintain that pride if our citizenry is treated equally.
Now I will go to bed tonight knowing at least I spoke my mind today, bracing myself for what the morning holds and waiting to see we have been thrown under the proverbial North Korean bus.