Yesterday I attended a professional sporting event in a large arena. As is customary, everyone stood before the game for the national anthem. I got up from my seat but didn't sing along. I stopped singing the Star Spangled Banner a few years ago because I dislike the mindlessness of the tradition. We sing the anthem before sporting events... why? What does our affirmation of citizenship have anything to do with the game about to be played? I get why it's meaningful before an international match, but this was a group of men from Pittsburgh trying to beat a group of men from New York.
In addition to not really understanding the custom, my feelings about America, democracy, and freedom have been tense in recent years. In the abstract, they're all great--I'm proud to be a U.S. citizen, I wholeheartedly believe in democratic elections and representation, and who doesn't love freedom? I do find it hard, though, to ignore the shortcomings of our government and our society, especially when we do not grant the same freedoms to all of our citizens equally. I struggle to proudly vocalize my support of the United States when I know how many double standards persist....
Anyways, I bring this all up because yesterday, at this professional sporting event, the singer of the national anthem did something different. For the middle verse of the Star Spangled Banner, he lowered his mic so that the only sound in the arena was the collective singing of the crowd. It surprised and powerfully affected me. The crowd carried the anthem, steadily and quietly. Without the magnification of the leader's voice, I felt enveloped rather than blasted. It seemed more thoughtful, more committed, and less like a spectacle.
I confess that I wasn't moved enough to join in the singing for the last verse, but it did make me re-interrogate my abstention. Appropriately, this is the weekend when we, as a nation, have collectively decided to remember a man who dedicated his life to exposing the shortcomings of American citizenship, democracy, and freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just a radical advocate for racial equality, he also fought for economic quality and against American' overreach abroad (particularly the Vietnam War). Dr. King was deeply critical of the false promise of American citizenship and the "American Dream," and he ceaselessly worked to remedy the worst policies, programs, and practices that disenfranchised vulnerable populations.
Reflecting on Dr. King's legacy today, I feel foolish to have taken my citizenship for granted--what a privilege. So many men and women have fought over the past 238 years to expand access to the protections of U.S. citizenship beyond white male landowners. In my effort to not be blind to the miscarriages of justice that occur regularly in the United States and to see the rampant hypocrisy in our promotion of democracy and freedom abroad, my vision of the meaning and importance of American citizenship became blurry. I'm still not interested in singing the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events, but I appreciate that I had this moment--especially this weekend--to reevaluate why and when to be critical and when to do the brutally hard work of upholding values like democracy and freedom.