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Black Arts and Culture

Gladys Knight Has the Right to Be Wrong

By D. Kevin McNeir
Washington Informer

Gladys Knight is poised to board that “Midnight Train to Georgia,” returning to her hometown of Atlanta where she’ll perform the national anthem prior to Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3.

And despite the many Grammy and Soul Train Music Awards, the #1 or Top Ten hits, or decades of success first with the Pips and then as a solo artist that go back to the 1960s, many of her fans have expressed disappointment and anger because of the decision made by the “Empress of Soul” to participate at the event.

The NFL, more correctly its all-white “team” of owners, in response to the controversy over “kneeling players,” as represented by the since unemployed poster boy quarterback Colin Kaepernick, recently adopted a new policy, with the boisterous support of Donald Trump no less, which fines players who do not stand during America’s so-called song of freedom. Sure, players can remain in the locker room but kneeling silently on the sidelines, even if, as Kaepernick and others believed, it’s done as a means of expressing their right as American citizens to protest racial discrimination and police brutality, has no place in the multi-billion-dollar industry of professional football.

Maybe Colin should have cracked open his history books, looking back at 1968, when, just months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., two African-American U.S. Olympic runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in a Black power salute during their medal ceremony – before being ostracized and repeatedly attacked with racist slurs upon their return home. [Incidentally, there was no such backlash during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when white athletes gave the Nazi salute].

Forget the racist lyrics in the third verse of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” which children never learn in elementary school, which performers never sing and which some interpreters of these lyrics contend that Key was taking pleasure in the deaths of freed Black slaves who had fought with the British against the U.S. [Yes, Key owned slaves, was an anti-abolitionist and even referred to Blacks as “a distinct and inferior race of people.”]

Forget the complicated relationship Black athletes have expressed with the anthem and the flag for which the song is played, including baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson who said in his 1972 autobiography “I Never Had it Made:” “I cannot stand and sing the anthem, I cannot salute the flag, I know that I am a Black man in a white world.’

Forget the potential upheaval that Black athletes could cause if every Black player (70.3 percent) in the NFL and every NCAA Division 1 Black college football player (46.9 percent) stood in solidarity with Kaepernick, along with hundreds of thousands of other Americans, Black and white, and boycotted the NFL, refusing to put on their uniforms and take to the field.

What if the millions of fans, just in the U.S. turned off their TVs on Sundays, withdrew their memberships from fantasy football betting pools, put their favorite team jerseys and caps in mothballs and cancelled plans to purchase season tickets?

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There have been some unforgettable renderings of the national anthem during previous Super Bowls, from Whitney Houston, Neil Diamond, and Billy Joel, to Aretha Franklin, Jose Feliciano and Marvin Gaye – even Ray Charles whose recording of “America the Beautiful” has yet to be equaled by any singer of any race.

So why can’t Gladys get paid like everyone else?

How do folks feel justified in blasting her for performing at the Super Bowl while making side bets in the office, the barbershop or in Vegas hoping to choose correctly as to which team will win or lose in their efforts to secure a big pay day of their own?

Gladys Knight has said she’s been fighting for civil rights for the majority of her life. I have no doubt that she’s done her share for the cause. But that hasn’t stopped the Twitter feed from exploding with all kinds of accusations and criticism. Ah, the beauty of free speech!

Still, if you really don’t like Gladys singing this Sunday, then don’t watch the game. Don’t read the scores in the paper the next day. Don’t bother checking the highlights or conversations on social media. Just read a good book.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Informer where D. Kevin McNeir is the Senior Editor.

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