The poet in me can’t resist the significance of knees in this week’s episode of America: 400 Years of Racial and Ethnic Culture in Conflict. First there is the gesture itself: kneeling. This is what people do when they propose marriage, what they do when they surrender, it is a universally accepted gesture of homage. It is also an image that is depicted of European colonizers when they landed on the shores of this continent, often being described as kneeling in Christian prayer. When I read Eric Reid’s Op-Ed reflection on why he and Colin Kaepernick landed on this gesture and not something more dramatic like turning their backs, I’m reminded that, like the history of resisting racism in this country, there are many different layers to how it actually works and what it all means in real time.
The poetry continues when you consider the fact that so many people today associate the playing of the national anthem at sporting events with honoring the armed forces. A colleague of mine reminded me the other day that no one ever asked if anyone minded this association (which saw a big boost post 9/11). The national anthem isn’t explicitly a battle cry (it is based on a drinking song). But looking at the origins of the practice of playing the anthem which was recorded as first happening during a WWI era baseball game, it is very easy to understand the association. Just in case you forgot, until after the end of WWII, both baseball and the US Military were segregated specifically against blacks. Anyone who tells you that sports, race and military service have nothing to do with each other, tell them to read a book.
A final (but certainly not the last) piece of poetry that resonates with me is anatomical. When I think of kneeling and conflict in the United States, the first thing that comes to mind is Wounded Knee. In Western US culture and history, we are aware of the name “Wounded Knee” because of the massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee Creek. This slaughter of Indian people (including children) may have taken place nearly 130 years ago, but the battle is ongoing. The Wounded Knee Massacre is considered by American historians as the last armed conflict between whites and Indian people. But these historians forget about the resistance at Wounded Knee in 1973. And of course one just needs to think back a short 12 months ago and remember that descendants of the same Lakota Sioux people who were targeted at Wounded Knee were the same people under threat and ultimately forced off of Standing Rock.
Anatomically, the knee is a pretty amazing joint. It is designed to absorb the most incredible forces that our bodies sustain. Its strength and suppleness is the key to evolutionary human survival, allowing for us to run fast, jump and climb. The knee allows the human body to dance and to create shapes and movements. It is an incredible juncture within the body.
And human beings have also learned to thrive without knees. Paralysis, injury, amputation have always opened up different ways to comprehend human movement without the knee. You don’t need knees (functional or otherwise) to have a beating heart or a brilliant brain. Even the name of the creek “wounded knee” (Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) honors a warrior who has lost use of this joint.
The knee can be used to great advantage by human beings. It can allow us to reach heights that we cannot reach without it. At the same time the knee is not essential to human life. It can be immobilized, absent or even just wounded and we will still survive. These are parallel lessons that people of color in the United States have demonstrated time and time again in the face of oppression. Today’s battles are not new, the protests are not novel. This is the perpetual state of things in a nation built on the obliteration of one people and the monetized subjugation of another. The resilience of people of color in this country, with and without knees in the face of this status quo speaks to our permanence here and across the globe.
If you are flummoxed by the current state of affairs in this country, maybe you need to consider more deeply where your body can bend to have more leverage in the battle or how you can adapt without that joint altogether. Some of us prove that both are possible every single day.
Some folks are in agony wondering
“What can we do and how should we feel ‘in these times’?”
Yet, while they’ve been busy
Creating ‘safe’ and ‘brave’ spaces
And learning about ‘diversity’
And pondering what it means to ‘dismantle’ racism in ‘these times’,
‘These times’ have been the entire context for Africans in “America”
‘These times’ have been the human history of rape
‘These times’ have been the ongoing Indian genocide.
Across the globe, right here at home, historical and modern, physical and social
‘These times’ are and have always been right now.
The only reason one could possibly see any of this as either new or shocking
Is because of the highly evolved, totally unique United States Brand™ privilege.
It is not just a simplistic privilege of skin color
But the complex construction of an entire privilege culture…
Based on race, fueled by fear, multiplied by greed
Locked in systems of opportunity, loaded in government
And fired down the barrel of a very specific social order
Laying waste to everyone in its sights.
The only way to truly deal with ‘these times’
Is to admit that ‘these times’ are business as usual
Face all the signs that say we have to start from scratch
And begin the experiment entirely anew.