On Sept. 13, 2016, Garrison Keillor performed at Rollins, where I have taught since 1999. White, Christian, and middle-class, I grew up in small-town Minnesota, a place resonant of Lake Wobegon. I long have regarded Keillor as an American treasure.
Our guest opened with a sing-along: “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Keillor then offered these sung words: “Oh, no matter what you may hear, we are one country.” Given his reputation as, in the words of Joshua Rigsby, writer, “a stalwart political leftist,” I wondered if Keillor had in mind a “great white snapping turtle,” as he called one of the 2016 presidential candidates.
Keillor continued, “We all know the words to roughly the same songs.” At this, I looked around the gymnasium of our college (whose annual tuition runs $46,520): the crowd largely baby boomer and overwhelmingly white—some of whom paid (for “exclusive” seating) $50, nearly a full day’s work at minimum wage.
Who is the “we,” I wondered; who “know the words to roughly the same songs.” Arun Gandhi, on campus to talk about “nonviolence in a violent world,” sat behind me. If he sang, “Sweet land of liberty,” I couldn’t hear.
Intoned Keillor, “And so no matter what differences may exist between us—which I’m not going to bring up tonight… nonetheless we are one people.” This is classic Keillor, a folksy beacon toward shared humanity. Still, I sensed that by directing our attention away from differences, Keillor could be singing about Colin Kaepernick as much as the “snapping turtle.” The latter likely had more supporters in the room than the former.
Two days before, my partner John and I discussed the 2016 football season, including Kaepernick’s national anthem protests, which had continued and spread. We commiserated about vitriol articulated by whites more incensed by protests of racism than by systemic racism itself. I lamented the lack of white allies sitting or kneeling next to their teammates of color.
At the same time, I reflected on my own athletic “career,” which ended, due to lack of further talent, after senior year of high school. I cannot imagine I would have been brave—or conscious—enough to sit or kneel during the national anthem. Indeed, once as a member of the Marquette University choir, I sang the national anthem at a Brewer game.
As someone with multiple layers of unearned advantage, I cannot fully apprehend what it must take for these athletes to risk scorn and to undercut their livelihoods. But as a person who has learned with and from students, colleagues, and friends of color for many years, I’ve done enough homework to respect and honor the protest.
To any (white) person who cannot imagine what would lead a person to sit, kneel, or offer a Black power salute during the national anthem, I urge you to read Kali Holloway’s compilation of racist perceptions, watch videos collected by Damien Cave and Rochelle Oliver of police injuring and killing persons of color, and read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Matt Taibbi’s The Divide. Then post on social media.
After Keillor’s sung remarks, he engaged us in the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” released in 1963, four years before the US Supreme Court struck down laws barring interracial marriage in 16 states, including Florida. From there, “Amazing Grace,” published in 1779 by former slave trader John Newton. Then “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” whose 1894 version included a verse in minstrel dialect. Then “America the Beautiful” again. “O beautiful for pilgrim feet/Whose stern, impassioned stress/A thoroughfare of freedom beat/Across the wilderness!”
I guess those last two lines sound more exuberant than, “An economy built on genocide/Land grabs and slavery!”
After the sing-along, Keillor transitioned into his quirky humor. We heard bits about sadistic dentistry and death by refrigerator mishap.
Coming toward the end, our guest observed, “Life is good. You learn this when you’re old, and you’re done with all of your complaints. It’s an amazing world that we live in no matter what anybody says. It’s a beautiful world. We live on this little well-protected island in a world of trouble and grief and suffering… So we should be grateful…”
For me too, life can be quite good. Then again, I don’t live in fear that the (white) boys of my family will be cut down the way Tamir Rice was. I hope Keillor was thinking more of the “snapping turtle” than of Black Lives Matter when he chose the word “complaints.” “It’s an amazing world,” yes, and a terrible one. “It’s a beautiful world,” yes, and an ugly one. “We”—Garrison Keillor and I—live on “well-protected island[s],” (his island more lavish than mine and additionally garrisoned by male privilege). Many others do not live on such an island; many others right here in the US live in a “world of trouble and grief and suffering.” When appropriate we should “be grateful,” of course, but we also must be discerning.
Keillor closed with a final sing-along. First, “How Great Thou Art,” a Christian hymn written as a poem in 1885, 69 years (a lifetime) before Brown v. Board of Education. Then “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” composed 4 years before the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
Then, as I feared, Keillor began, “Oh say, can you see by the dawn’s early light…” In waves, the crowd rose to its feet for “The Star Spangled Banner,” written in 1814—a half century of slavery still to come.
I thought of the white football players I keep hoping will join their teammates. Certainly I (a tenured full professor whose livelihood does not rely on endorsements) cannot ask something of them I’m not willing to do myself. “I’m not standing,” I told my partner John.
“I’m not either,” he said.
The on-its-feet crowd encircled us, all but erasing our sit-in of solidarity. Perhaps 6 people saw us and likely only 1 person of color: Arun Gandhi.
This may not be your—or Garrison Keillor’s—way of plugging into racial justice movements. And, of course, the work extends far beyond what individuals elect to do when the national anthem plays. I hope we can work together to create the kind of nation in which everyone feels moved to rise, hand over heart.
Lisa M. Tillmann, Ph.D., is professor and chair of Critical Media and Cultural Studies at Rollins College.