ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been sitting out the national anthem during preseason games this summer. He says it's to protest the way America treats people of color. He plans to do it again tonight during an away game in San Diego. It'll be military night at the stadium.
Kaepernick has received a lot of criticism and support. NPR's Keith Woods has been thinking about his own relationship to the anthem and his father's.
SIEGEL: Had Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in my father's presence, Daddy would have fixed him in a stare that could freeze the blood in your veins. Then to no one in particular but to everyone within earshot, he'd give the young man a two-sentence lesson in patriotic etiquette. You stand during the national anthem, Daddy would say. People died for that flag.
As a child coming of age in New Orleans in the 1960s, I found my father's love of country bewildering. His was a generation of men born free but shackled by bigotry, yet every time he took my brothers and me to see the Saints play football at old Tulane Stadium, we all stood for the national anthem. We took off our caps, faced the flag and placed hands over hearts. And Daddy sang. He sang with a pride I could not comprehend in a gorgeous tenor's voice that he didn't mind showing off in a city that once denied him the simple dignity of being called Mr. Verdun P. Woods Sr. He sang so that other people would hear.
Daddy he was an insatiable learner. He joined the military in the 1940s. He went to Manila, Okinawa and Korea, trained as a medic, worked as a communications clerk, learned a bit of German and enough Japanese to make you believe he knew more. After he'd served his country for eight years, he took a job at the post office - one of those limited career tracks that a racist America reserved for black men.
Feelings didn't flow from my father. They escaped. So any mention of the white commanding officer in Korea who treated him like trash and took credit for his work and Daddy's hands would start shaking, and he'd bite down on his tongue like a Maori warrior dancing a haka.
This man, this father of nine children, this veteran - he would sing with a devotion that belied the truth I knew. I can't imagine that he would sympathize with Kaepernick. But for me, the quarterback roused an old ambivalence. I'm a father of five, a grandfather of four. I live unrestrained by immoral laws that constrained my elders, and I'm fully aware that America teems still with the racial injustices against which my father railed and Colin Kaepernick now stands or sits. I can't condemn him. Love of country can't be accurately measured by whether someone sits or stands or slouches or sings.
When Daddy died on Halloween morning 2005 two months after Hurricane Katrina, he left me a strange inheritance. I'm incapable of going to a sporting event without noticing who leaves their hat on and who doesn't cover their heart. That is my relationship to the national anthem. It means what it does to me because it meant what it did to him. I have nothing to prove my fealty to America, least of all by how I treat a song written by someone who believed black people are born inferior.
Who am I to decide what it should mean to Colin Kaepernick? Who could possibly know what it meant to my dad, and what could you make of me a week ago when that beautiful music started and I rose to my feet at a Washington Nationals game? If what you saw was an unmitigated display of patriotism, you were wrong. My relationship to my flawed homeland is too complicated for that. All you would know that I stood. I faced the flag, hand over heart, and I sang.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")
SIEGEL: Keith Woods is NPR's vice president for diversity in news and operations. A longer version of his essay is at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.