Sit-down and sit-out protests of the singing of the national anthem before National Football League games have exploded into white-hot controversy yet again this weekend after President Trump fecklessly proffered his (largely unwelcome) two cents — lambasting demonstrators as “sons of bitches” — further dividing the fatally cleft populace into diametrically, vitriolically opposed camps.
To Trump and others condemning the protests — initiated by quarterback Colin Kaepernick to draw attention to disproportionate and unjustified police violence against minorities in the U.S. — anyone possessing the gall to take a knee, sit, or remain in the locker room during the Star-Spangled Banner hasn’t an ounce of patriotism in their body.
To those supportive of Kaepernick’s and others’ protest — whether or not they concur with his stance — the Constitution of the United States protects their right to demonstrate and must take precedence over any consternation against the act, itself, no matter how untenable or disrespectful the president and his ilk find sitting for the national song.
Who’s ‘right’ in all this, for better or worse, has unfortunately metamorphosed into topics of debate surrounding the flag, the anthem, patriotism, and putative offense to military veterans — rather than discussion remaining centered on the evidential proportion of Black and other minority Americans winding up in early graves at the hands of startlingly trigger-happy cops, as Kaepernick has intended.
He wanted white America — and, specifically, policy-makers — to pay attention to the lethal manifestations of systemic racism seeming to play out policing’s most abhorrent failures in this nation.
Instead, the debate has taken a darker turn.
With this controversy dominating social media, keeping the facts straight and dispelling misinformation is imperative; thus, the current diatribe against protesters — that their defiance of tradition in standing for the anthem is somehow, itself, a racist act — needs dispelling of the sharpest order.
Particularly because the anthem, itself, celebrates the deaths of slaves.
Yes, despite constant complaints from conservatives, who lament the inability to criticize Kaepernick without being deemed racists, Francis Scott Key’s ostensively patriotic ballad contains deeply racist overtones championing the untimely deaths of escaped slaves — and that it does so might be the most pertinent reason for debating who should stand for the singing of that song.
If, that is, anyone should — ever.
To indoctrinate citizens from a young age, governments around the globe impress upon youth through repetition of such mainstays as the Pledge of Allegiance and anthem — but rarely do verses other than the latter’s first ever reach the ears of ordinary Americans. Perhaps it’s time they do.
As made plain at the end of the third verse, and pointed out by The Intercept last year when Kaepernick’s protest first exploded heads, Key — who penned the troubling poetic lyrics in 1814 — would not have needed to hide the unabashed white supremacy dripping from hand to paper. And it shows:
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
For background into the writer’s mindset, it’s necessary to revisit the Battle of 1812, in which the United States sought to wrest control of Canada from the British — a plan failed from the start due to overestimations of military might against the fledgling nation’s foe. Capitalizing on American weaknesses, the British gleaned an advantage early — enjoining slaves free and captive to fight for their cause in return for a vow not to be sent ‘back’ to their ‘owners’ at the conflict’s end.
“Let the landings you make be more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage. … The great point to be attained is the cordial Support of the Black population,” an article in Harper’s Magazine, cited by the Intercept, quoting the Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir George Cockburn. “With them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British Troops, Mr. Madison will be hurled from his throne.”
Families and individual slaves flocked to British ships at the tantalizing prospect of freedom, as adult men were fitted to a regiment known as the Colonial Marines, which took part in a massive attack on Washington, D.C. — and the torching of the White House.
On the night of September 14, 1814, the British launched an all-out assault on Fort McHenry, and, as the Intercept continues, “Key, seeing the fort’s flag the next morning, was inspired to write the lyrics for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’
“So when Key penned ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,’ he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.”
Revisit the lyrics yourself, now — in light of this information — and contextually with the current anthem controversy, Kaepernick’s call to end the injustice by police, and the festering wound slavery impressed upon Black America, which plays out today in each of the aforementioned ways.
“The reality is that there were human beings fighting for freedom with incredible bravery during the War of 1812,” continues the Intercept. “However, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ glorifies America’s ‘triumph’ over them — and then turns that reality completely upside down, transforming their killers into the courageous freedom fighters.”
Key never elaborated on the poem which officially became the national anthem in 1932, including the contentious and oft-debated third verse, which drew a substorm of disputation for the Intercept under the premise Key had intended the term ‘slaves’ to refer to “sailors who had been seized and press-ganged into the British navy. (The impressment of Americans was a central grievance cited by the U.S in the lead-up to war.)”
But Pulitzer Prize-winning professor and esteemed historian, Alan Taylor, of the University of Virginia (incidentally, of course, the recent scene of deadly confrontations between white nationalists and their opposition) calls the third stanza, “Key’s dig at the British for employing Colonial Marines,” in his book, “The Internal Enemy.” Taylor — who intones the impossibility Key would have celebrated the deaths of Americans held by the British — also contends,
“American rhetoric of the time cast the impressed sailors as defiant and unbroken by British might — as the exact opposite of the slave.”
Further, Key himself didn’t shy away from the establishment’s fondness for slavery — even capitalizing, literally, on the business of returning escapees, as the outlet reports,
“In his work, Key was the prototypical Washington lobbyist. In the 1820s, he parlayed his celebrity as patriotic poet into a lucrative law practice helping clients with business before the federal government. During this period, Key also represented slaveholders attempting to retrieve their escaped ‘property.’ In time, Key became a confidant to President Andrew Jackson. He was, in today’s parlance, a Washington insider.”
A single article could never pretend to touch the complexities of the Star-Spangled Banner, Key, systemic racism, slavery, or even law enforcement origins as slave patrols and the resultant brutality in 2017 — but the undeniably pro-slavery position touted and the precise timing and reasons for the author’s statement in verse should not fall to the wayside in deference to vapid indignation about patriotism.
We have an obsession — if not an inexplicably servile devotion — to symbols, in America. Judging by the near-violent reactions some display to a quiet protest like kneeling for the anthem, the fixation has been detrimental to evolution of national principles away from those of long-gone white men to a modernized, inclusive quest for liberty for all races and creeds.
Even veterans disagree on whether Kaepernick should or should not have the right to protest — an odd development indeed in the Land of the ostensibly Free.
Sit, stand, hide, or sing — whatever action, if any, you take upon the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, it would behoove this country to finally dissect its shameful slave-holding past.
Better still would be championing freedom for all to express themselves as they please — including the calling out of myriad stale symbols of oppression still very much a part of our culture, when they should have been scrapped ages ago.
(Featured image: Shuttershock)