The knee is the largest and most complex joint in the human body. A flexible hinge connecting thigh and shin bones, a focal point of leverage and stability, it helps carry the weight of the body; it is essential for movement and vulnerable to injury.
Just as the body part itself, kneeling is a complex gesture with a diverse set of connotations based on context:
+ A spiritual person offering prayers—reverence, devotion, plea
+ A suitor proposing with a ring in hand—love, longing, commitment
+ A policeman on the neck of a black man—oppression, corruption, violence
+ A football player during the national anthem—anguish, resistance, courage
When Black Lives Matter protesters join together in Minneapolis, Louisville, Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York, and take a knee to leverage their despair and outrage in quest for racial justice, to lay bare the instability of a deeply broken system, to take part in a movement, they evoke much of the aforementioned—from reverence and love, to the memories of violence and resistance.
One knee on the ground, backs hunched, shoulders rounded, heads slightly bowed. The bodies beg the nation to adopt a posture of introspection to remember the eight minutes forty-six seconds that George Floyd was pinned under the weight of a police officer and the forty-six years that he was pinned under the weight of white supremacy. Struggling to reason, struggling to speak, struggling to breathe, struggling to stay alive. Until he simply could no longer.
“Before it happened, it had happened and happened,” writes poet Claudia Rankine while reflecting on Rodney King’s beating in Citizen: An American Lyric. “The moment had occurred and occurred again with the deaths, beatings, and imprisonment of other random unarmed black men.” Jordan Russel Davis, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray— she leaves the list incomplete knowing that soon there will be more names to add. Then, on a starkly white blank page, she offers three concise, piercing lines:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Defunding the police is a step, yet policy changes in a few cities or states alone is not enough to police the white imagination to which Rankine refers. The imagination that identifies some as Other, sees them as inferior, decides their lives are worth a counterfeit twenty dollar bill. The imagination that has been sustaining the everyday structures of racism over centuries.
Slavery. Civil War. Ku Klux Klan. Lynchings, beatings, hangings, burnings. Demands for change, for dignity, met with fists, clubs, tear gas, dogs, water hoses. Assassinations of civil rights leaders. Economic exploitation. Police brutality. Mass incarceration. Systematic discrimination, exclusion, degradation. Denial, denial, denial.
When the weight of this history finally brings America to the knee, to mourn those whose lives have been broken, stolen, lost, there will also be an opportunity to interrogate that white imagination. To recognize the innate violence of its racial projections. To reckon with its unfulfilled ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. To see through its duplicity and self-deceit. To attain humility at last.
Kneeling is also a symbol of humility after all: at an altar or communion rail, it is part of a ritual. And so it is when thousands today solemnly lower themselves down on the streets and sidewalks acknowledging the dirt, debris, and the dead beneath, upon which this country has been built.
Such humility could grant America a new kind of strength, not external as in military dominance or economic superiority, but internal as in honesty, integrity, and hard-earned wisdom. If taking the knee is a ritual that represents this change in posture, may Black Lives Matter protests be a rite of passage for the American nation.