There is no curling competition in the summer Olympics, but I have been loving the 2016 games, and will go into deep depression when the Olympic flame is extinguished at the end of it all. It's all there: the thrill of triumph, the agony of defeat; the splendid collection of competing nations; the godlike physiques executing godlike actions and making them look effortless. It's inspiring and I have reveled in every minute of it. Except for one thing: the social media dust-up over American gymnast Gabby Douglas.
Ms. Douglas, 20 and African-American, who won the women's all-around during the London Olympics in 2012, has been subjected to a litany of criticism over a range of "problems" from her physical appearance to her behavior during a medal ceremony while the national anthem was being played. The hue and cry in social media over Gabby's failure to place her hand over her heart during the anthem has been relentless and a source of frustration for the athlete and her mother, Natalie Hawkins. Among the attacks were claims that Gabby was "unpatriotic" for not doing what is expected of American athletes who medal and stand on the platform to be honored.
In a year when race issues have been front and center in the American landscape, this controversy involving an African-American athlete is yet another among so many others vying for our attention.
Gabby's performance in the games has been less than stellar, and a number of social media posters attributed her non-show of patriotism to her jealousy of fellow teammates who had excelled in their routines and brought home medals. But the criticisms also raise the specter of what we (or at least this writer) thought were long-dead questions about black Americans and their level of patriotism toward America. As the writer William Faulkner famously observed, "Sometimes the past isn't past; it isn't even dead."
Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, and always around July 4th, the question was asked (not completely rhetorically) as to whether African-Americans were as patriotic as white Americans. What would the answer be that particular year the question came up? Yes? No? It Depends? Was July 4th going to fall during a full moon?
Given the complicated and torturous history of black people in America - slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the dreams both realized and deferred of the civil rights movement, and everything in between - the answer would seem obvious. How could any people go through what African-Americans have and still come out patriotic on the other side? Many African-Americans have asked that very question. The decision of some was to leave America altogether because they kept coming up with a negative answer.
But it can also be argued very strongly that African-Americans are extremely patriotic, although this writer would contend that their patriotism is probably of a different order from their white citizens. It's the patriotism defined and tempered by their history and continuing complex experience in a society that still holds complex attitudes toward them. Rather than abandoning
America as some had chosen, more have remained and made a stake here, because they have, in spite of everything, loved their country and seen reasons to remain here. They have fought for, died for, protested to, and, yes, competed for America, as has Gabby Douglas.
As someone who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, I have memories of my schoolmates and I gathered on a designated day of the week in the auditorium, wearing our crisp, white blouses and shirts to attend the assembly. We pledged allegiance to the flag, hand over our heart; we were required to learn the words to the national anthem and to sing it with conviction. In those years, most of my schoolmates were African-American, and the country was in a tailspin over civil rights. But over and against those events, we continued to say the pledge and to sing the anthem. We understood that performing those actions constituted being an American.
These days, like learning good penmanship, reciting the pledge of allegiance and singing the national anthem have all but disappeared from school life. So it may be that Gabby Douglas never learned the civilian etiquette my schoolmates and I had been taught decades ago. In fact, I have been reading the lips of many of the Olympic medalists, Americans and those of other nations alike, and a good number of them seem also woefully ignorant of the words of their country's anthems. Some have placed a hand over the heart, while some have kept their hands at their sides. Before we attack the patriotism of one athlete, let's take stock of them all. And let's recognize that the criticisms against Gabby are completely unrelated to her patriotism of lack of it. She and her fellow athletes are exhibiting their patriotism by their very participation in the Olympic games.
To that point, it would be an honor to the spectators if all athletes knew the etiquette to display in case they win medals and find themselves on the podium to be honored. It would be an honor to us who watch and cheer them on if they came to the games knowing at least one stanza of their country's national anthem and could sing it with full-throated pride.