This photo represents another black opinion on the American flag
It’s a poignant portrait of American excellence, sprinkled with #blackgirlmagic
The best picture from the Rio de Janeiro Games – the shot of Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin celebrating their historic sweep of the 100-meter hurdles with a synchronized triumphant leap while stretching American flags behind them – takes on an even deeper meaning post-Kaepernick. It serves as a rebuttal, not directly to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s stance on the national anthem but rather to the notion that there are only singular approaches to progress. Two extremes can exist, both sides can be right.
Rollins, Ali and Castlin weren’t ignorant of the issues that preclude Kaepernick from standing at attention for the flag. They chose to celebrate it anyway. To be fully aware of all the country’s shortcomings and unfulfilled promises and still embrace the flag requires an extra amount of love. It deserves bonus patriot points.
To see three African-American women so delighted to represent this country isn’t just a snapshot, it’s a lesson. It teaches us the power of forgiveness. It gives us hope. It reminds us that while America is the country that didn’t acknowledge the full humanity of black people in its Constitution and denied women the right to vote until 1920, it’s also the country that sent Dr. Mae Jemison into space and made Michelle Obama the first lady of the United States. The great promise of America is that the potential for greatness for every member of this society exists. In the moment of this picture, it’s realized.
“In America, I like that there’s equal opportunity for everyone,” Castlin, the bronze medal winner, told me last week as we rode back to downtown Chicago following The Undefeated’s town hall meeting at the South Side YMCA of Metro Chicago. “There are stereotypes and there’s unspoken rules and burdens … but there’s so much room for us to come together and unite, and show the world that we can be a country that can stand together and get great things done.”
This is her approach. It’s no more or less valid than Kaepernick’s. And it’s a reminder that there is rarely just one Black Point of View. The African-American perspective can be as varied as all the notes in a symphony.
There’s actually something uniquely American in Kaepernick’s method of protest. He did so in the least intrusive way possible. He didn’t lead a blockade of a freeway or disrupt business. He did nothing to prevent the playing of the anthem or try to drown out those who chose to sing along. He simply opted to sit it out. The fact that such a passive act could still bring about such vitriol is telling, an indication of how unwilling the nation is to confront its flaws. Predictably, there’s been as much focus on the “who” as there has been on the “why” he’s doing it or, most importantly “what” he wants to change.
There’s a quote from an interview with the Japanese-born baseball player Ichiro Suzuki in ESPN The Magazine that seems appropriate to the Kaepernick story. “In the 16 years that I have been here, what I’ve noticed is that in America, when people feel like a person is below them, not just in numbers but in general, they will kind of talk you up,” Ichiro said. “But then when you get up to the same level or maybe even higher, they get in attack mode; they are maybe not as supportive.”
Maybe we needed that outsider’s perspective from Ichiro, an unlikely 21st-century Alexis de Tocqueville. There does seem to be a bit of that resentment toward Kaepernick, with the rhetoric stopping just short of the word “uppity.”
He got to live the dream of everyone who ever tossed a football and be the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl, and he’s complaining?
Meanwhile, wealthy people continually whine about taxes, the only service to country they’re asked to perform, and no one tries to deny their right to do so. For her part, Castlin doesn’t question Kaepernick’s methods.
“I think he’s not wrong for bringing awareness,” she said in a text message this week, “but I’d just like to see people that protest combine those actions with other efforts to address police brutality in our country.”
Castlin’s approach is to attempt to inspire. Before The Undefeated event, she met with students and let them touch her bronze medal and wear it around their necks as a tactile reminder of what they can accomplish with dedication. She remains bullish on the potential of this country even though she can bear witness to one of its chief failures: the ongoing refusal to address the proliferation of guns.
When she was 12, gun violence took the life of her father during a robbery at the hotel where he worked. And she was a student at Virginia Tech during the 2007 shooting rampage on campus that left 32 victims dead.
She dedicates her achievements to victims of gun violence. And she celebrates the country that allowed her to accomplish her goals.
That unforgettable picture of her and her teammates came about at the request of photographers.
“They were like, ‘Do a jump! Do a jump!’ ”Castlin said. “So we were like, ‘OK!’ ”
The perfect timing, with all three hitting their peak altitudes simultaneously, came from the rhythm they have as hurdlers, Castlin said.
The result was a poignant portrait of American excellence, sprinkled with #blackgirlmagic.
“It made me proud,” Castlin said, “because with everything and the controversy going on in our country right now – not just about violence, but even the political events that are going on right now – it felt good to see three young African-American women come together for unity, and to represent our country, our communities, our families. So that meant a lot to me.”
There’s enough room in this vast country to accommodate both that expression and Kaepernick’s. And there’s enough bandwidth in the African-American community for both as well. As long as we acknowledge the freedom to choose, the American ideals that Rollins, Ali and Castlin opted to celebrate, remain intact.