Perhaps if Colin Kaepernick had known Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly before he weighed in on those Nike shoes emblazoned with the Betsy Ross flag, he might have acted differently. Maybe he wouldn’t have equated the Revolutionary era of America with slave ownership.
Kelly is a 72-year-old African American woman from New York City who made the news a few days before the Nike imbroglio hit the headlines. She represents the largely ignored role of African Americans during the Revolutionary War. More than 5,000 black people helped gain America’s independence. And Kelly, a descendant of a slave owner who materially aided the Revolution, was installed June 30 on the national governing board of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a first for an African American.
The next day, Kaepernick convinced Nike to dump a limited edition athletic shoe because the design included the so-called Betsy Ross flag on the heel. That’s the flag with 13 stars arranged in a circle to signify the original Colonies. The shoe was supposed to debut on Independence Day.
Kaepernick reportedly focused on the fact that the flag was a relic of the slavery era. Recently, it has been co-opted by some militia groups. These are often rag-tag organizations that believe the U.S. government taxes citizens oppressively and otherwise limits their liberty. They like to fancy themselves as modern avatars of the patriots that freed the North American Colonies from Great Britain.
Some militias play survivalist games in the woods and prepare for when the day when the U.S. government will crumble. Some are racists, some are not.
They do not deserve this much importance, and they certainly should not be allowed to claim ownership to America’s symbols and history. The Betsy Ross flag is not in the same category as the Confederate flag, which is inexplicably linked to the vile hatred of white supremacists.
There’s time to salvage this flag’s history and reputation. After all, it flew at Barack Obama’s second inaugural, displayed along with other early American flags.
This is where Kelly and efforts of the D.A.R. ought to influence. The D.A.R. has long winced at its reputation as elitist and lily white, with membership based on direct lineage to someone who fought in or aided the American Revolution.
For nearly three decades, the D.A.R. has conducted research proving the contributions of more than 6,600 African American and Native Americans who played a significant role in aiding the Revolution. The materials are available online, so people can use it to track their own links and apply for membership.
Some of these patriots were freemen. Some were slaves who were promised (and subsequently denied) freedom if the Americans prevailed. Some fought in place of their owners. Their contributions are historical facts, and they undercut stereotypes and misconceptions about the nation’s founding.
By leaving out such stories of people of color, we’ve basically left a path clear for the likes of militia groups and white nationalists to appropriate symbols and history we all share. Nike folded quickly to perceived pressure and killed the Betsy Ross flag shoe. Apparently it was unable or unwilling to offer a competing narrative.
Conservatives, including Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell and a wide range of radio and cable news hosts with airtime to fill, went bonkers. They accused Nike of submitting to identity politics run amok.
How about a bipartisan standup for historical truth?
Kaepernick, of all people, knows what it means to be misunderstood. The backlash against his effort to call attention to police shootings of black men was unfair and sometimes slanderous. He chose the act of taking a knee after a Green Beret suggested it as a respectful way to protest without sitting during the anthem.
Besides, too often, we allow patriotism to be defined by the flag-wavers.
Mere veneration of symbols does not make you a patriot. Nor, for that matter, does your lineage. Patriotism may best be measured in how people embrace and promote the ideals of America, in how willing they are to stand up for equality and the rights of all.
We’d all do better to promote a little more historical accuracy — and a little less kneejerk outrage.
Email Mary Sanchez at email@example.com.