Taking The Knee: The Power of Human Symbolism.
The history of ‘taking the knee’ and why everyone should be willing to do it.
Words by William Cooper.
Throughout history, humans have used their bodies to demonstrate physical representations of power, collective strength, and unity, portraying how a collective of people are equally aligned, fighting for the same cause.
The most recent physical symbol that is unifying the world is the ‘taking the knee’, which has become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. It is not only a symbol of respect for those whose lives have been lost at the hands of racist bigotry, but also an obligation that everyone is fighting for the same cause, and everyone is equal through the cause.
The first person to ‘take the knee’ was the gentleman at the epicentre of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA in the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would kneel on one knee when praying with others in public.
However, the symbol was popularised by Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback, in 2016. After refusing to stand in the national anthem because he didn’t want to “show pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”, he instead began to kneel during the national anthem before matches. The symbol was heavily criticised as being unpatriotic and respectful of the American flag. However, the symbol gained widespread popularity, which has continued until this day.
‘Taking the knee’ has also been accompanied by some with a single upheld clenched fist, referring back to the 1968 Olympics, when 200m Gold medallist Tommie Smith, and Bronze medallist John Carlos, posed on the award podium in solidarity with the Black Power movement that was ensuing in the USA at the time. The clenched fist, held up towards the sky, is a symbol of power, unity, and social strength.
These two symbols have been used frequently throughout the Black Lives Matter movement, both in the UK and USA, in the past weeks. Indeed, they have become the overarching physical representation of the movement. The English Premier League has adopted the symbol also, with players and referees before kick-off kneeling in solidarity with the BLM movement.
Many politicians and public figures have been asked whether they would ‘take the knee’ in solidarity with the BLM movement. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, posted a photo on Facebook on 9th June, which depicted himself and the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, both taking the knee in solidarity with the BLM movement.
However, some politicians have been more critical of taking the knee. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, refused to support ‘taking the knee’, reasoning that it was a symbol of “subjugation and subordination”. He said that he would only take the knee for the Queen or his wife. He also assumed that the symbol had been taken from ‘Game of Thrones’ and did not realise the historical significance of the symbol.
Raab has subsequently received heavy criticism for both his ignorance towards the ‘Taking the knee’ symbol, and his lack of support for the movement it represents.
The symbol could not be further from a representation of “subjugation and subordination” that Raab believes is represents. The symbol delivers an immensely powerful message.
It first shows respect towards those who have died, both in slavery itself, but also in the fight for racial equality.
Second, it shows the collective strength amongst the protest. If every person takes the knee, everyone is reduced to the same stature, therefore representing the equality that the protesting is trying to achieve.
Lastly, it is a show of collective strength. It is a physically powerful symbol. When Knights of the Realm used to take the knee before the Monarch in the Medieval Ages, it was a symbol of the knights unwavering service towards the Monarch, who they saw as the ultimate purpose in life.
This sense of respect and collective service towards the ultimate purpose; racial equality, is encapsulated in this physical symbol. Those who also adopt the Black Power clenched fist, allude to the inherent power of the ethnic minorities.
Those like the Foreign Secretary, who refuse to ‘take the knee’, do so because they either fundamentally do not understand, or support the cause. Whatever your creed or race, if you really care about bringing about racial equality (whether you believe it exists or not is a subject I will discuss at another time), then you should be willing to take the knee as part of a protest or remembrance event.
You are not surrendering yourself or weakening your position. You are showing respect and understanding towards an ethnic minority who continue to suffer even in the 21st Century; whose ancestors suffered more than any first-world citizen could ever imagine. This does not mean that your own racial identity is subordinated or relegated as a result of supporting another racial identity.
All that it means is that you recognise the historical suffering and dehumanisation of an ethnicity, and you support their cause to eradicate the aftermath of this suffering and dehumanisation.