To Kneel or Not to Kneel? – by Terry Howard

“The Robert E. Lee High School Fighting Leeman!”

There’s a cultural tug of war raging across the nation and it has seeped down into “small town USA,” my little hometown in Virginia notwithstanding. And seemingly there’s no end in sight.

On one side the argument is to remove the name of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, from the name of the local high school. No new news there. For those on the other the side, this is about heritage, not slavery, so leave things the hell alone. No new news there either. So the finger pointing rages on.

But despite that debate, the truth is that the school has a darn good football team. The other truth is that more than half of the talented team is comprised of African-Americans. So the plot thickens.

Now since I’m a football fanatic, I was not going to miss a potentially good game since I happened to be in town that week. So my son and I ventured out to the stadium to check out, gulp, “The Fighting Leeman.” We made our way through a parking lot cluttered with pick-up trucks, quite a few with license plates bearing the confederate flag.

As expected the stadium was jam packed. Both teams came in with sterling won – loss records. Like their nearly 100% white football team on the sidelines, the nearly 100% white folks in the visitor’s stands were decked out in red and white.

On the home team side, blue and gray were the colors worn by the team and fans in the stands, a few black faces among them. One couldn’t miss the irony of the team on the field; black faces buried underneath gray helmets, wrapped in dark blue uniforms embroidered with the name of the aforementioned confederate general who fought to preserve the institution of slavery.

As we zig zagged our in search of seats, I wondered what it have been like to have been on that field tackling or being tackled, throwing, catching or dropping passes in the black and orange jerseys of Booker T. Washington High School, my high school, pre integration. But back then the rigid rules of segregation would not allow my kind to put on the blue and gray. We were allowed to cut and water the grass, but not play on that field. The insanity of racial segregation was the rule of the day.

Then came my “deer in the headlights” conundrum – call it my Colin Kaepernick moment – when these words blared out of the speakers:

“Would everyone please stand for the singing of our nation anthem?”

Red and gray helmets came off freeing up bleached hair and dreadlocks. And in the stand caps came off and hands covered hearts. I stood there stoically, not sure what to do with myself, my cap and hands in particular.

“Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light…”

I listened to the words but didn’t really “hear” the words. Perspective, the outcome of past and present day experience, invisibility and second class citizenry, will do that to you.

To kneel or not to kneel? 

 That’s become the question of the moment, one rooted in the history of protests in the United States. You see, “back in the day,” clinched fists thrust in the air were the precursor of today’s kneeling on the sidelines.  “Afros” were antecedents of “dreds.” Tommy Smith and John Carlos were the Kaepernicks of the sixties. They paid a price. Kaepernick has paid a price.

“What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming…” 

My cap stayed on.

My eyes stared off into the red and white on the opposite side of the field.

My arms remained alongside my body.

My lips stayed closed.

My aging knees were spared the discomfort of my getting down and back up again.

By standing tall, I short circuited the potential for racial taunts, a photo opt, a local news headline that would have detracted from what was a great win for the boys in blue & gray…. “The Fighting Leemen!”

“O’er say does that Star – Spangled Banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

To kneel or not to kneel? That’s become the split second decision.

Terry Howard

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