The Star Spangled Banner - An Anthem For Freedom... And Slavery

Labor Day was a good respite. Now we should be able to endure the final two months of the Presidential campaign. And to take our minds off of that when we need to, the NFL is gearing up for the football season.

A wrinkle in the game plan for the nation is Colin Kaepernick's sit-down protest during the singing of the national anthem. Since his first protest, Megan Rapinoe, the Seattle Reign soccer star, and Jeremy Lane, the Seahawks cornerback, have both joined Colin. His protest is to draw attention to police brutality and embedded racism in our country. Some people don't like this. The Santa Clara cops have threatened to refuse to work at the 49ers' football games. So now part of our obsession with football is to see which players sit or kneel to join Colin's protest and who doesn't.

But a bigger question is, what should we do? As fans, we all stand up for the national anthem. Is that the right thing to do? We can join Colin as well, if we think this is an effective (or ineffective) protest against injustice in our country, and if we agree (or disagree) with Colin. We could also reframe the question: Why should we stand up for our national anthem, in which the words themselves embrace slavery? That's right. Not in the first verse, but go down to the third and fourth verses, and here is what you will find:

"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.

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation..."

What Francis Scott Key was describing was a land of the free and a home of the brave for white people - the freemen, and a land of the unfree for the enslaved black people of the United States.

If you doubt this, play a little game, pretend you are in Germany in the 1930's and replace "slave" with "Jew", "star-spangled" with "swastika", and "freemen" for "Germans". Here is what you get:

"No refuge could save the hireling and Jew
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the swastika banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever, when Germans shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation..."

Francis Scott Key was himself a slave owner and enforcer of slavery. He lived and wrote and practiced law before the civil war, that is, when America was as much a slavocracy as a democracy. His lyrics are a tribute to the fact that during the War of 1812, the British had hundreds of soldiers who had fled from slavery. They formed three companies of marines, they took part in the burning of Washington, fought in the Battle of Baltimore, and skirmished against American forces all along the coast. The British commander-in-chief said they were "infinitely more dreaded by the Americans than the British troops". During the war, between 4,000 and 5,000 slaves fled to British lines and to freedom. The Americans wanted their "property" back. The British refused, transporting ex-slaves to settlement in Canada and Trinidad.

Colin's protest forces us to discuss police brutality and embedded racism. Its roots are embedded in the national anthem itself. The words of the Star Spangled Banner provide the historical context for today's racism and discrimination, and the actions of slaves fleeing their enslavers to British lines provide us with a very American striving for freedom. Makes you wonder what is patriotic and what is not....

During the civil war, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote another verse for the Star Spangled Banner:

"When our land is illumined with Liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained who our birthright have gained,
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
While the land of the free is the home of the brave."

If this verse replaced the third and fourth verses of Key's lyrics, we would have a national anthem that truly embraced freedom for all people in our country. But with the ode to slavery embedded in the original words, it makes you wonder why we should stand at attention, or even sing, this anthem. It's a good thing that Colin has started the protest.