In 2001, during my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill, I spent spring break on the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina. A group of students was there to do service projects, and one of our conversations had been around the efforts to preserve and revive the beautiful Cherokee language. One day, a lady who knew our interest in the language pointed to a Cherokee man sitting at some distance from us. He was wearing his World War II Veteran hat.
“That man is fluent in the Cherokee language, having grown up here speaking his native tongue. You won’t ever hear him speaking it, though.”
The conversation continued around me, and I half-listened to the talk about how Cherokee children were once punished in government schools if they spoke their native language. As a result, some never spoke Cherokee in public settings, even as adults decades later.
I say half-listened because I was already lost in my thoughts. “This man risked his life for a country that had already done him so much injustice. Even now, he does not feel free to speak his language. And he isn’t given the proper medical care that he deserves, neither from the Veterans Administration nor the Indian Health Service.” You see, both government organizations had made promises for quality care that have not been honored as they should be.
In that moment, I was astounded by the contrast of someone sacrificing so much for a government that had wronged him in so many ways. As a student of history, I was grateful to him for his efforts to help stop the agenda of the Axis Powers. Still, I was so mad that he had been wronged.
Given the debate over the last few years about standing or kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, I have gone back to that moment, watching that World War II hero from a distance. It may seem silly to others, Donovan, but I imagine a scenario where the National Anthem begins to play and I watch a man who can truly make first claim to American lands stand. I would absolutely stand with him. It wouldn’t mean that I agree with what was done to him as a child. I wouldn’t mean that I am satisfied with mediocre health care for Veterans or broken promises from the federal government to the first Americans. For me personally, however, it would mean that I want to honor his service, let him know that I remember with him that some of his friends came home in boxes, and take a brief moment out of my life of freedom to be thankful to him.
That’s what I think about when I stand during the National Anthem, Donovan. It does not mean that I agree with everything that our government is doing. It does not mean that I am okay with injustice or broken promises. You know me better than that. It is a personal choice for me, though, to say “Thank You” to all of the men, women, and children who have served our country.
When I stand, I think about our family members and friends who have served. I think about a grandfather I never met who served. I think about children whose moms and dads are overseas, and who live every single day with a tumultuous mix of hope and dread. I think about Sandy Bradshaw and Lance Corporal Jacob Levy, who both once walked the same high school hallways that you and I walked. During that one minute and forty seconds, I try to honor what I have always thought that time was about… being respectful, giving thanks, and doing a symbolic act as part of collective group of individuals that may be different in many ways but who all love freedom and want to keep it for our children.
I also want you to know that when I lived in the Dominican Republic for those two summers, I always stood and tried to be as respectful as possible during the playing of the Dominican National Anthem. I love the country, but there were certainly things I saw that I did not like when it came to laws to protect children not being enforced. Still, when I stood during the anthem, I was trying to honor those who fought for Dominican independence and those who later stood up to Trujillo at the cost of their own lives.
I once asked a young man, first generation American whose parents were from Korea, why he joined the Navy. Without even thinking about it, he replied, “So my sister doesn’t have to.” That’s the thing. Somebody has to do the job of training and then protecting our country from groups who do not believe in religious freedom or women’s education or second chances after committing a crime. The country and even the song may be flawed, but I believe in the symbolic act of honoring those who protect us so that we may have freedom to continue to address the flaws.
Finally, let me say that I do not think you can naturally assume someone loves our country because they stand during the National Anthem. I do not think you can naturally assume someone does not love our country because they kneel during the National Anthem. There is no inherent value in standing or kneeling if the person does not know why they are doing it. On this issue, I have great respect for an individual who can give me a detailed and carefully processed response for why they do what they do during the playing of that song. I think so much education and healing could take place if we each worked on our own response to that question. The power of a collective moment of pause could be so much greater.
As your mom, I personally hope that you do always stand during the playing of the National Anthem. Don’t do it because I said to do it, though. That is meaningless. Do it because you have studied the constrast of a republic versus a monarchy. Do it because the people we came from worked hard and cooperated, day after day, after just having survived a Great Depression, to help supply all the needed materials for American men and women to go over the pond and stop Hitler. Do it because Elijah doesn’t have his brother here to watch him graduate this year. Do it because you want the twins to be able to go to Sunday School openly, and not in hiding. Be a man who loves freedom. And when you stand, love that man beside you who is kneeling, and when the song is over, ask him how you can help.
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. 1 Peter 3:15
I love you forever,