As fury around Colin Kaepernick’s principled stance continues to rise, let’s look back at Robinson, the barrier-breaking athlete and activist who wrote that he was a “black man in a white world.”

By Kirsten West Salavi

The Root,  August 29, 2016 —

Jackie Robinson GETTY IMAGES


Jackie Robinson, in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, described the moment when he realized that he could not “stand and sing the anthem,” nor “salute the flag,” which calls to mind recent statements made by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Robinson strongly indicted this nation on charges of racism, classism and bigotry:

There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.

Kaepernick shared a similar sentiment after his game against Green Bay on Friday:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Kaepernick has since doubled down on his stance, even though many white Americans became completely unhinged at the thought of a man of color not showing gratitude or pledging allegiance to a country that continues to extrajudicially kill black, brown and indigenous people with impunity. Despite the nation’s history of activist athletes—including Muhammad Ali, who in 1966 refused to serve in the Vietnam War; Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as “The Star-Bangled Banner” played—their friend and ally Peter Norman standing beside them in solidarity; and Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, who in 1995 refused to participate in the “nationalistic ritualism” of recognizing the flag and singing the anthem—racists in this country continue to feign surprise that blacks in America are not eternally grateful for the “privilege” of not being in chains.

In 1947 Jackie Robinson felt the beautiful burden of blackness as “The Star-Bangled Banner” played. His dual consciousness, something that even during the last year of his life he could not quite explain, is evident in each word of his book. The gravitational pull of racism at odds with the euphoric pull of patriotic possibilities is what continues to keep many people of color off-balance, slipping and sliding on streets filled with the blood of our children and the tears of those who love them.

We know that “we never had it made.” And continuing to salute, stand at attention or place our hands over our hearts in honor of a symbol that has doubled as a noose around the necks of generations of black Americans, especially those who seek liberation, will ensure that we never do.

Kirsten West Savali ✔@KWestSavali
Institutional, racist violence is not “apples and oranges.” Either you care about those affected by it or you don’t. …
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Robinson’s words are ancestral wisdom. They are both road map and blueprint, waiting on us to find and build upon his understanding that “liberty and justice for all” is a red, white and blue lie.

And what has once again been made clear in the last few days is that many white Americans just can’t handle the truth.

Kirsten West Savali

Kirsten West Savali is a cultural critic and an associate editor at The Root. She was named to Ebony magazine’s 2015 “Power 100” list and awarded a 2015 Harry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship. Her provocative commentary explores the intersections of race, social justice, religion, feminism, politics and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.