The Star-Spangled Banner

Today is America's Independence Day. Since African American players have made up the majority of the league for several decades, it may not be a surprise that the NBA has a complicated history with the national anthem (and with all due respect to Raptors fans, I'm not referring to "O Canada").

The relationship of African Americans to American patriotism can be a complex one overdetermined by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, disproportionate rates of military service, a frequent love of home and geographic place, economic class, an alternatively conservative and liberating culture vis a vis Protestantism, and many other factors -- and in the athletic realm -- the Olympics as a showcase for the most successful black athletes in the world under the Stars and Stripes. You may see the same family fly a flag in their yard and have great respect for servicemen and women, but be very critical of their country's shortcomings on race.

So during that two minutes players stand before their games, the NBA has reflected these contradictions. We've even seen some players sing the anthem themselves and others refuse to stand for it. Josh Howard's comments about the enforced patriotism of the national anthem were likely that of many players, though he was the one "caught" saying them thanks to an era of cell phone videos and the internet.

But as I watched (for the 1000th time) the video of Marvin Gaye singing the national anthem at the 1983 All-Star game I realized much of this isn't quite a "contradiction." Perhaps many players have discovered their own resolutions to the antagonism between enforced patriotism and a long history of discrimination.

In the case of Marvin, his own soulful rendition implied that this is not only an American (and therefore, by historical ideology, white) national anthem anymore, but a specifically Black American rendition, embracing a legacy of change.

Marvin was not have been the first to interpret the anthem his own: Jose Feliciano faced incredible backlash for his 1968 version. Jimi Hendrix added his own interpretation a year later at Woodstock. And Marvin had his own evolution with the anthem at public events himself.

And like most great moments of original artistic expression brought to the people, the logic of postmodernism recycled it. The 2004 NBA All-Star Game featured Nona Gaye singing along with a video of her late father and the inevitable Nike ad featuring the work of someone who couldn't decide for himself if his voice should be part of their commercial or not.

But the greatness of Marvin's arrangement remains. And it happened at the All-Star game of the sport most associated with Black American culture, which has long been incredibly flexible and adaptive and able to turn what was once oppressive into something liberating. His performance could be made into a dozen commercials and it wouldn't take away anything from an original performance that inspires this listener to thoughts of the complexity of patriotism and culture -- and the beauty in a struggle and a song.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. - John Keats
So happy 4th of July, Negative Dunkalectics readers. Without further ado, Marvin Gaye:

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oilcanboyd said...

there was a great article on mahmoud abdul-rauf years after he retired, he's still getting hate mail about not standing:
The Conversion of Chris Jackson

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