American Culture

Colin Kaepernick did not go far enough with the National Anthem

“The Star-Spangled Banner” glorifies violence and war against a historical ally. It’s hard to sing. And that’s just the beginning.

Francis Scott Key

Colin Kaepernick has inspired me to re-evaluate history that I thought I knew. It turns out that I was wrong–and I taught US History for years (including AP US History). So I’m a little embarrassed. But also grateful. By now everyone knows that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the playing of the US National Anthem before the game on Friday against the Green Bay Packers. At a press conference he explained:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.

There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

He was, and is, being bombarded with aspersions against his patriotism, parentage, privilege, and personhood. Initially, I mentally added his name to the list of sports stars who have taken unpopular albeit principled stands: Sandy Koufax, Muhammed Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Both NBC and NFL Sports are covering the historical angle extensively. But then a friend sent me a link to an article on The Intercept, “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem is a Celebration of Slavery.” Jon Schwarz writes:

Almost no one seems to be aware that even if the U.S. were a perfect country today, it would be bizarre to expect African-American players to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Why? Because it literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans [his emphasis].

It turns out that the British had not just recruited Indians during the War of 1812, they had also recruited escaped slaves, who were promised their freedom, for a unit called the Colonial Marines. The escaped slaves brought their families with them to the British ships and encampments. According to Jason Johnson, who wrote “Star-Spangled Bigotry: The Hidden Racist History of the National Anthem” for The Root, the Colonial Marines helped defeat Francis Scott Key’s unit (yes, that Francis Scott Key) at a battle called Bladensburg, a victory which contributed to the British being able to attack Washington DC. Later in 1814, while Key was attempting to convince the British to release a friend from captivity aboard a ship in Baltimore’s harbor–not, as history books proclaim, serving as a prisoner himself–he got a front row seat for the battle of Fort McHenry. Key, of course, memorialized the US victory over the British in a poem which went on to become, over a century later, the US National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” As Johnson and Schwarz both point out, modern renditions of the Anthem stop at the end of the first verse:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

No one really remembers the rest, much less sings it. But the third verse is where it gets problematic because that’s where Key unloads on those former slaves who fought for the British:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
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.

Key celebrates the losses and deaths of the British and the former slaves and sees their deaths as having purged their presence from the country they betrayed: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Then he glorifies victory: “And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

It’s pretty clear: the US was not the land of the slaves, or the oppressed, it was the land of the free. Students from Morgan State University produced a video about the Anthem’s history:

Think about that the next time you’re at a ball game, just before you yell “Play ball!” Schwarz also calls the Anthem “a musical atrocity.” He’s just the latest in a long line of critics to point out that the song is hard to sing well. Erich Kunzel, the late conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, was an advocate for changing the National Anthem from “The Star Spangled Banner” to “America the Beautiful.” He explained his reasoning to an audience that I was part of. First, the song memorializes a war against a country that has, for much longer than a century, been one of our greatest allies. Second, it glorifies warfare in general with numerous violent images. Third, it is difficult to sing both musically and lyrically. Kunzel was booed by some and applauded by others. Undaunted, he led the orchestra and audience in “America the Beautiful.” And he left me thinking that he was right. For those of you who haven’t seen the lyrics lately, here they are:

America the Beautiful (1911 version)

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea! I would like to see one change, however.

Let’s restore the original (1893) last three lines from the third verse:

God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!

So, how about it? Perhaps, for any number of reasons, it’s time to make the switch. Let’s replace bombast that lionizes some of this country’s worst traits and times in history with one that celebrates more positive themes. It’s the right thing to do.

2 replies »

  1. This is all true. But it doesn’t address Kaepernick’s real issue. Everything he says about the country is true regardless of the song, right?

  2. Absolutely! Everything he says is true. And his 1st Amendment rights must be respected (cue arguments about corporate representation).

    I doubt that he knew this background (but it would be cool if he read it here). But it’s all part of the historical and contemporary record and those are connected.

    America the Beautiful says:
    God mend thine every flaw,
    Confirm thy soul in self-control,
    Thy liberty in law!

    But it’s not divine intervention–it never has been. It’s us. It’s always been us. Divine intervention would be too easy.

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