What is my nation?
When Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the national anthem earlier this year, I imagine this question weighed heavily on his mind as well. I imagine he considered how Black people in America were dragged, kicking and screaming, some jumping overboard to certain death rather than facing a future of slavery, into this land which was not ours by people to whom it did not belong either. I imagine he knew—like I know—that we are nationless, and have been for hundreds of years.
And for hundreds of years we have been expected to sing the praises of the country which enslaved us, lynched us, shot our 7 year old sisters dead in their beds without consequence, and has now elected a racist, sexist demagogue president who has promised only more of this.
What anthem do I sing?
Civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson offered an alternative to the rockets’ red glare and bombs exploding in the sky which make up the anthem of Donald Trump’s country. “The Negro National Anthem”, written in 1901, was a song of a present struggle, of “marching on ‘til victory”, rather than a celebration of a battle already won. It feels more fitting—but only somewhat. The HBCU Howard University uses it in all of its games. But they use it in addition to, rather than instead of, the racist one Kaepernick refused.
We march on and racism does too, right beside us. Does that mean the struggle will never end?
I recently visited the James Weldon Johnson exhibit at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and my first thoughts were on Kaepernick and the questions I assumed we share. But the exhibit, which is in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the collection and runs through December 10th, only gave me more questions—more history I didn’t know I didn’t know.
Sometimes overlooked, Johnson was also an educator, lawyer, diplomat, and author. “It’s amazing how little he is recognized for how important he is,” Melissa Barton, one of the curators of the exhibit, told me. His expansive legacy was demonstrated in the collection, which includes the papers of Richard Wright and Jean Toomer, manuscripts or correspondences of Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay, and 675 boxes of papers from his friend Langston Hughes. There are Van Vechten photographs of Alvin Ailey, Marian Anderson, Pearl Bailey, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt, and Ethel Waters. Sculpture by Augusta Savage, drawings by Mary Bell, a portrait head of Ethel Waters by Antonio Salemme. So much history, and I had come only for a song.
I consider 2016 to be the year of Black History. The same year our first Black president finishes up his final term and our media began documenting the number of people slaughtered by the police amidst the Movement for Black Lives for the first time (because our government still refuses to do so itself), we also saw the opening of the first of its kind, Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington, D.C.
Placing my experience at the Beinecke exhibit alongside some of the critiques of the Smithsonian is illuminating. Steven Thrasher wrote for The Guardian that the museum “represents a philosophical and political failure for the time we are in. … [T]o have the black experience in need of such validation, to require a building of such grandeur with a tony address, is quite at odds with the current political moment.” Compared to research-devoted, quiet, substantial-yet-modest Beinecke, the richness of our history felt very different to receive than from a museum. Hurston’s handwriting on a donated manuscript sang to me—for me. When President Obama spoke at the grand opening of the Smithsonian, he expressed his hope that the museum “makes us talk to each other and listen to each other.” Black folks have been talking and listening their way through shackles for centuries, so we know whom this song is for, and it is not for us.
After Donald Trump was elected, Oprah Winfrey, a major funder of the Smithsonian museum, implored those of us trying to figure out what the struggle for liberation will look like in the new era to “take a deep breath” because “hope lives,” based on a meeting between Obama and the President-elect that both said went well:
— Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) November 10, 2016
What if we cannot breathe? What if we are Eric Garner? How can hope live if you are dead?
I have not yet been to the museum and this is not a critique of it, which, of course, cannot be compared to a collection like that at the Beinecke. I am simply yearning for an answer to these questions and looking to history to find it, because I know the answer lies there. Do I lift every voice or take a knee? Do I do neither? Do I do both, like Howard? How do I sing any national anthem when I have no nation? On a land where Donald Trump is president? On a land where Obama is president and he wants Trump to succeed?
The item that stuck out to me most at the Johnson exhibit was a book called The Life and The Adventures of a Haunted Convict, which was edited from a manuscript discovered by Yale scholars of the oldest known prison memoir by a Black writer. What makes it so compelling is its unapologetic embrace of violence against white people and a rebellious voice almost unheard of in first-person works published from the time. It rests beside an early manuscript of Native Son, a classic also challenging our notions of Black violence, with Richard Wright’s wild handwriting scribbled throughout.
I think we don’t know how to talk about violence. We live in a constant state of legitimized violence—both physical and institutional, both by Trump and his predecessor—which is never labeled as such, while we collectively demonize any forceful resistance to it.
Our non-violent electoral system brought us what is sure to be more violence in the years to come. We say that protests against such violence are fine, as long as they are peaceful. As long as they don’t rock the boat too much. Self-designated allies resist by wearing safety-pins, because, as Vogue noted in an article marketing thousand dollar safety-pin apparel, it is “easy”. Vox tells us we must coddle racists in order to change them. This country that is not mine is built on violence and the violent refusal to take on violence is how we get through every day.
I have no country. Maybe I have no song. I have only this history. I have only a new way of thinking about violence. I have only the voice of the Reeds. The Garners. The imprisoned. The dejected. The dead. These voices do not make a song, they make a scream. When history looks back on 2016, it will tell if we were serious about lifting every one of them, or if the sound was too loud for our ears.