The national anthem and its racist content

By Guest Columnist JOE BEASLEY, a human rights activist in Atlanta and founder of the Joe Beasley Foundation

“Ooh-oh, say can you see…” begins our national anthem, the music and lyrics we’ve grown up with as the incantation of individual and collective deep loyalty to the United States of America, its democratic tenets and ideals. But prompted by recent headlines, we once again face and examine the difference between how the words of the national anthem resonate differently for some Americans.

Joe Beasley

Joe Beasley

We learn in elementary school that the “Star Spangled Banner” was a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, and that at dawn on Sept. 14, 1814, Key was moved to write a poetic tribute to the American flag still intact and waving in the wind, fog and rain. American troops at Fort McHenry withstood the night’s British attack during the Battle of Baltimore. The poem’s original name was “The Defence (sic) of Fort M’Henry;” the name was changed when it was later set to music.

What many of us have not learned in school is more about the character of the man, the poet of our national anthem. Born into 18th century aristocracy and privilege on his family’s plantation in Maryland, it was his birthright to uphold that legacy of wealth and social status, along with the family’s way of life, which included owning several slaves. As an adult and slave owner himself, he adopted and reflected the mindset of the times, and through career as lawyer and U.Sa attorney for the District of Columbia, thwarted any potential threat to his life of privilege and to the system of slavery.

It is well-documented that Key hated the abolitionists of his time, and wielded his legal acumen to stifle the abolitionist movement in Maryland. Much of that belief was based in his assessment that blacks were, “a distinct and inferior race of people.”

During the War of 1812, some slaves escaped to join the British army in the war against the United States because the British promised freedom from slavery in exchange. Most of us are familiar with and can sing the words of the song’s first verse, but in the third and less-known verse of his four-verse poem, Key exposed his hatred of the escaped British blacks, disparaging the “band who so vauntingly swore” as the “hirelings and slaves,” “their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution….”

francis scott key

Francis Scott Key is described by smithsonian.com as, ‘a slaveholding lawyer from an old Maryland plantation family [who] wrote the song that would in 1931 become the national anthem and proclaim our nation the land of the free.’ Credit: smithsonianmag.com

Like most historical accounts, there’s more. It wasn’t until 1916, a century later, that the “Star Spangled Banner” was named designated the national anthem by President Woodrow Wilson’s executive order. It should not go unnoticed that Wilson was a Southerner, his family owned slaves, he was a staunch segregationist, and disavowed the many African American supporters who crossed party lines to help get him elected. Wilson dismissed Ku Klux Klan lynchings in the late 1860’s as “mere instincts of self-preservation … to protect the Southern country.”

In 1931, Congressional resolution upheld the “Star Spangled Banner” as national anthem under President Herbert Hoover. Hoover so appealed to Southern white voters that he was the first Republican to carry Texas since Reconstruction. His plan to resurrect the party in the South was to remove African Americans from all leadership positions in the southern GOP, he vehemently opposed federal anti-lynching laws and was known to voice concerns over racial mixing and “mongrelization” with those of Japanese descent. W.E.B. DuBois was among the many African American leaders of the time to speak out against Hoover’s racism.

And today, some among us still wonder if racism is real, if it’s possible that it is as fully entrenched in America’s historical, cultural, educational, social-economic fibers as some contend. Yes, and yes. Racist fear even perpetuated the outright lie that the 44th President of the United States had somehow achieved educational excellence, political prominence and the presidency without being a citizen of this country. They rationalized that Obama’s achievements mirrored a life of elevated privilege to which he should not have been able to aspire, and certainly never attain.

Our point in protesting the poem is the innards of the poet and the demeaning historical context of the words. We contend that the national anthem is a documentation of the violence, racism and legitimized disenfranchisement wrought on African Americans for generations. Our point is that a national anthem should be a musical tribute to a collective ideal, the American democracy, the most respected country in the world, and the people who create and uphold that democracy. To know the real, ugly backdrop of the “Star Spangled Banner” only serves to rub salt in our wounds; in this case, the backdrop is the headline.

And so we take a knee. Or raise a fist.

Colin Kaepernick

Former San Francisco 49s quarterback Colin Kaepernick (center) launched a movement of NFL players kneeling or raising a fist to protest police brutality. Credit: playathlete.com

Racism prevents some, not all, from understanding that any American can discern and decide if and when their human and civil rights are being marginalized, threatened or forgotten, and to protest. Protesting does not mean disrespect for the American flag, nor does it minimize the ultimate sacrifices of veterans and their families. In fact, the opposite is true – every time someone takes a knee, or raises a fist without retribution, the very foundation of our democracy and constitutional civil rights is deemed alive and well.

A racist few tout “make America great again” while regarding old inequities as the basis for a return to “great.” Much of my generation is still mired in old racist concepts and assumptions. It is a new day. We are standing in our faith and truth, a right for which our ancestors fought and died so the American flag could wave, oh, quite so literally “o’er the land of the free.”

Note to readers: The NAACP’s California chapter has adopted a resolution that calls on the California legislature to urge Congress to rescind ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ as the national anthem. Another resolution supports former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began a protest movement among professional athletes against police brutality by kneeling when ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was played before games, according to a report in sacbee.com.

 

6 replies
  1. Kay Stephenson says:

    Thanks for this article. You taught me some things about that poem I did not know, and about the author as well. I will hear it differently from now on. I know that doesn’t bring any resolution to the issue, but education is the first step.Report

    Reply
  2. Emil Walcek says:

    F.S. Key was a privileged son of the ante-bellum South, among its staunchest defenders, and arguably wrote lines in his poem disparaging slaves who ran away to fight with the Brits on the promise of freedom. That’s an interesting factoid. Is Beasley’s goal to have it expunged?

    Americans have used and abused many peoples in our history. Indigenous peoples are a chapter unto themselves. Yet, ethnic and cultural islands flourish here as incubators for integration into our melting pot, or not. They spawn new American success stories, as well as malcontents, xenophobes, sponges, and everyday folk making a living – just like most communities. However, with articles like these, it’s getting harder and harder to separate the industry of victimhood from everyday economic and social realities: where set asides, awards, admittance and employment quotas are commonplace; granted based on the very biases and discriminations they fight.

    I whole heartedly endorse every effort to bring past into present context through education and awareness. Although, combing through history to pro-actively trumpet the little known, obscure, and open secrets that could be the salt in someone’s festering wound sounds oddly like the strategy of a fringe recruitment effort.

    Much more productive than taking a knee, or raising a fist, IMO, are community efforts in the trenches to foster: the dreams that any would aspire to, involvement, safe communities where residents can be free of violence, accountability for citizens and public servants.Report

    Reply

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