America is in an era where problematic iconographies such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are being revised.
Protesters in San Francisco pushed over a statue of Francis Scott Key. The composer of the national anthem was a known slaveholder. Additionally, Key once said African-Americans were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”
Liana Morales is an Afro-Latina student at New York’s Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts and she refused to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” during her virtual graduation ceremony. Morales told the Wall Street Journal, “With everything that is happening if I stand there and sing it, I’m being complicit to a system that has oppressed people of color.” Morales performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which is widely considered the black national anthem.
Is it time for America to move on from “The Star-Spangled Banner” and adopt a new national anthem with a more inclusive message? Historian Daniel E. Walker, author of “No More, No More: Slavery Cultural Resistance in Havana and New Orleans” and producer of the documentary, “How Sweet the Sound: Gospel in Los Angeles” believes it is time to change the national anthem.
The 53-year-old in me says, ‘we can’t change things that have existed forever.’ But then there are these young people who say that America needs to live up to its real creed. And so, I do side with the people who say that we should rethink this as the national anthem because this is about the deep-seated legacy of slavery and white supremacy in America, where we do things over and over and over again that are a slap in the face of people of color and women. we do it first because we knew what we were doing and we wanted to be sexist and racist. And now we do it under the guise of ‘legacy.’
Kevin Powell, activist, and author of the new book, “When We Free the World,” believes it is important to understand the racist legacy of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Powell begins with the bigoted background of Key.
‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was written by Francis Scott Key, who was literally born into a wealthy, slave-holding family in Maryland. He was a very well-to-do lawyer in Washington, D.C., and eventually became very close to President Andrew Jackson, who was the Donald Trump of his time, which means that there was a lot of hate and violence and division. At that time, there were attacks on Native Americans and Black folks — both free Black folks and folks who were slaves — and Francis Scott Key was very much a part of that. He was also the brother-in-law of someone who became a Supreme Court justice, Roger Taney, who also had a very hardcore policy around slavery. And so, all of that is problematic. And the fact that Key, when he was a lawyer, also prosecuted abolitionists, both white and Black folks who wanted slavery to end, says that this is someone who really did not believe in freedom for all people. And yet, we celebrate him with this national anthem, every time we sing it.
Francis Scott Key, he was a big-time guy in terms of the American colonization of society. This was not just a person who just lived in the time period. This is a person who helped define the time period.
“The Star=Spangled Banner” is based on a poem Key wrote about his eyewitness account of the War of 1812, which was originally featured in the little-heard third stanza that was “blatantly racist:” “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.”
Even though that version of the national anthem is rarely performed today, Powell has been aware of it for years, and like Morales, he has refused to sing the national anthem since he attended high school in the 1980s.
Powell, who wrote for Vibe magazine, says he grew up on Hip-Hop. He talks about how people used to criticize Hip-Hop for being violent, however, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is full of violence that Kindergarteners are taught.
Walker understands that many people are just now learning of Key’s abolitionism and the third horrific stanza of the national anthem.
People just don’t know history, and everybody’s guilty of this. I mean, if I wasn’t a historian, I wouldn’t know these things. And it took getting a PhD to learn certain things! And I am still learning things every day. There are students of mine, who are white, who say to me, ‘I’m so upset that I got sugarcoated history my whole life. I feel cheated. And once I found this out, then I don’t want to have a part in it.’ Those are the people you see in these rallies. They’re saying that they want to live in a world where those vestiges are gone because they have no reason to be here. And that we need to be about redemption in a society — that if we have wronged someone, we can go back and do our best to fix that. And this one is pretty easy to fix.
According to Powell:
The issue is not Black people’s patriotism. I mean, there’s very few folk that are as patriotic as African-Americans. The way I look at it is, I think what Jimi Hendrix did with ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock, or the way that Marvin Gaye reinterpreted it and made it a soul song, or Whitney Houston singing it at the Super Bowl in 1991, it became something that belonged to all people, not just folks that thought we should just blindly sing this song. And that’s what we do: take these opportunities to perform it because it’s a way to showcase one of the greatest gifts to the world, which is music.
By Jeanette Vietti
Yahoo! Entertainment: Why it might be time to finally replace ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ with a new national anthem
New York Daily News: Why I wouldn’t sing the anthem: ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ has a racist history, explains a high school student
rt.com: Are national anthems like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and “God Save the Queen’ racist, and do their lyrics need a 2020 overhaul?
Featured Image Courtesy of Georgia National Guard’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top Image Courtesy of Mark Barron’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License