Washburn celebrates Black History Month with discussion on the national anthem

Charles Rankin

  February is Black History Month. To celebrate, and to help begin important conversations, Washburn hosted a discussion on a topic that has been in the forefront of American society for the past two years.

Stephanie Shonekan, chair of the black studies department and associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Missouri, spoke Feb. 19 at Bradbury Thompson Alumni Center on the national anthem and its role in black identity.

Shonekan discussed the origins of the U.S. anthem, including its author, Francis Scott Key, who was a slaveholder and an anti-abolitionist. She also discussed how many of the lyrics, especially verses from it, are often forgotten. Shonekan then looked at anthems as a whole and the fluidity of them.

“Black people all over the world for whom music is a potent expression of culture, tradition and identity have grappled with the irony and conflicts on the concepts of a national anthem, sometimes changing their anthem as was the case with Nigeria in 1978,” Shonekan said.

Shonekan said that five Nigerians created a new anthem to replace their old one, which was created by a British national.

Shonekan said that most African nations have struggled to come to grips with their anthems because of their similarities to European anthems, even going so far as playing the anthems of Belgium and Zimbabwe and having the audience guess which was the African anthem. The majority of those attending did not guess correctly.

“Africans should question these songs, and they are,” Shonekan said. “This [is] music that is supposed to signify independence, autonomy and freedom but sounds tightly harnessed to their colonial past.”

Shonekan discussed the way many African-Americans have used their musical abilities to create what can some describe as counter anthems, such as “Lift Up Your Voice and Sing,” Jimi Hendrix’s own rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and even modern songs such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Shonekan has compiled an extensive list of songs that could be considered counter anthems.

Shonekan then moved onto the image of Colin Kaepernick.

“When Colin Kaepernick chooses to truly listen to the American national anthem and reevaluate its legitimacy for black folks in an era of Black Lives Matter, an era of Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castile [and] Trayvon Martin, he is keeping the faith,” Shonekan said. “[Kaepernick] is rethinking and responding, conducting a critical symbiotic exercise that results in a gnawing question about citizenship and freedom. He is asking, ‘What is the essence of equality and justice? Who is the “we” in the first line of the “Star Spangled Banner?”’”

Shonekan noted how Kaepernick did a second line of reevaluating and rethinking in his decision to kneel instead of sit during the anthem, out of “reverential” honor for veterans.

Shonekan went on to discuss the way that white people are often seen as intrinsically and inherently American, while those of color are often skewered for any perceived un-American acts, pointing to the 2016 Olympics where two white shot putters and a black gymnast did not place their hands over their hearts during the playing of the U.S. Anthem and how only the gymnast was eviscerated by the media and the general public.

One student came to the event because of her belief in seeing different perspectives on the issue.

“I think it’s important for people to recognize the First Amendment right to free speech and to protest peacefully like Colin Kaepernick did,” said Jade Hodge, senior math major.

Hodge, who plays volleyball at Washburn, said she really looks up to Kaepernick and his protest.

“Colin Kaepernick really is amazing,” Hodge said. “I play volleyball and no one shows up to volleyball games. I still don’t have the courage to kneel like he does. All I had the courage to do was not put my hand over my heart. He had the courage in front of millions of people… to kneel and that’s just amazing. I have a lot of respect for him as an athlete.”

After Shonekan’s lecture and a brief question and answer portion, there was a panel discussion that included Shonekan, Dina Bennett, associate director for Mulvane Art Museum, Bruce Mactavish, assistant professor of history at Washburn and Rodney Smith, associate director for student success at University of Missouri-Kansas City. The panel answered questions from the audience about a variety of topics such as race and civil discourse.

To continue its celebration of Black History Month, and to further the discussion on race in America, Washburn is hosting Olympic medalist John Carlos at 10 a.m., Feb. 22 in White Concert Hall. Carlos will speak about the 1968 Olympics, where he received the bronze medal in the 200-meter and protested during the national anthem with gold medalist Tommie Smith by raising a Black Power salute.