In my rather compromised memory, there was a time when about the only time I heard the National Anthem was at the beginning of a rodeo. Then of course, I was exposed to other sporting events, like high school, college, and pro football. And of course the anthem is prevalent at the international competition of the Olympic Games.
The Anthem has the ability to move me to tears. I confess that I bought into the old-school notion that Francis Scott Key wrote the anthem to honor the bravery of our young armed services in their battle for independence from England. In addition to the imagery of the flag waving amid smoldering ramparts, the song also takes me back to that time in my youth when my pony and I tried valiantly to keep up with the big horses as they snaked expertly around the dusty arena to the rousing Stars and Stripes forever in a presentation of the colors. The horses galloped in dizzying circles before miraculously coming to a standstill in the center of the arena for an often off-key rendition of our anthem.
I have attended and performed in countless classical music events. I think the first time I heard the National Anthem performed in a concert hall was right after 9/11. After that event, the Anthem was occasionally trotted out without warning. For some reason, it always struck me as inappropriate. Classical music performances are usually comprised mostly of music from old dead Europeans, so why would we participate in such a nationalistic opening to an evening of European or global music? I’m sorry, but I’ve been programmed to associate the National Anthem with sports and dust, not with listening to music that was often composed when the native population of America was being invaded by Europeans.
In light of the recent controversy over the Anthem, I was hoping that on his maiden appearance as Director of the Boise Philharmonic, Conductor Garcia would avoid the controversy of the Anthem. Before I arrived at the Morrison Center, I had given some thought to how I should behave in the event that I was wrong about Mr. Garcia’s logic.
In case you’ve been stuck under a rock for the past year, you already know that last year Colin Kaepernick took the brave step of kneeling during the National Anthem as a way to protest and raise awareness of injustices in America. His action touched off a blitz of controversy and cost him a lucrative NFL contract. Some call his act despicable and unpatriotic.
But, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the Washington Post: “What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities.” He went on to write: “Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”
I’ve had a year to think about Kaepernick, about his claims of social injustice, about my assumptions regarding the state of equality in America. So, when Conductor Garcia raised his baton and the orchestra launched into the National Anthem, I remained in my chair, head down, still tearing up, but this time for entirely different reasons. I no longer saw the flag waving above Ft. McHenry. I no longer tasted the Wyoming dust in my mouth or felt the sweaty efforts of my pony between my knees. This time I saw our flag flanking Donald Trump as he recommended that NFL owners respond to #TakeAKnee protesters with: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!” This time I smelled blood in the streets of Chicago and heard parents weeping over the murder of their sons by trigger happy police.
I am devastated by how far we have not come.