In honor of Veterans Day, I would like to make a few comments concerning the recent controversy surrounding the Star-Spangled Banner, otherwise known as the National Anthem. The issue seems to be centered on whether this song is racist, particularly the third stanza of which many people are unfamiliar. Not only are most people unfamiliar with the wording, but they are in the dark about the history from which the wording came.
Recently, I did an informal survey of students on my campus, asking them when the National Anthem had been written, and under what circumstances. To be honest most did not know, and those who ventured a guess said the Revolutionary War. At least, they can get a few points, knowing the British had something to do with the songs creation. When asked if they could quote or sing the National Anthem, most did a fairly good job with the first, but not one could recall any other stanza. I wasn’t surprised, I don’t think most people could, including me. When the controversy first broke, I had to look up the song to reacquaint myself with each verse.
So, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the third verse:
“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 washed out their foul footsteps' 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!”
I took the liberty to underline the offending passage, which on first glance looks pretty racist. I wouldn’t blame anyone, who reads that line, and assumes it to be a racist statement. However, the Star-Spangled Banner was not written in a vacuum, unrelated to its time and place, even as it speaks to us in our own.
After the Revolutionary War the British did not simply march back to their sovereign soil and let the Americans do as they pleased. The British took to the sea, and with their Navy, the world’s greatest superpower at the time, began a systematic harassment of American merchant vessels. By 1812, this harassment had taken a bite in the United States economy and the small and poorly equipped Navy, of our new fledging nation, was asked to protect our maritime rights. At the time the United States Navy was no match for British ships and many American ships were captured. The American sailors were “enslaved” on British Navy ships, forced to work the ships or face death. There were also others working on the ships that were not British. They were “hireling” or mercenaries, not an uncommon practice, when a nation would fight a war so far from home, particularly with so many other concerns in Europe at the time.
With the capture of U.S. Warships, and the conscription of its Sailors, not to mention the many merchant ships and U.S. citizens, President James Madison had no other recourse but to sign the Declaration of War sent to him by Congress. Thus, began the War of 1812, now euphemistically known as “The Second Revolutionary War.”
By 1814, the British had captured Washington D.C. and taken several outstanding citizens prisoner including a Dr. William Beanes. This doctor had a good friend and lawyer who volunteered to be a negotiator with the British for his release. The lawyer was Francis Scott Key, whose favorite hobby was poetry. Apparently, Mr. Key was good at both his profession and his hobby. After the successful negotiations on a ship in Chesapeake Bay, just outside of Baltimore, Dr. Beanes was freed and able to leave the ship. Mr. Key, detained with last minute details of the negotiation, was held on board as the British commenced a bombing of Fort McHenry.
Quite unexpectedly, Key was given a front row seat to a naval operation against his own country. Under the stress of battle, and the anxiety for his countrymen in the Fort and conscripted on the British ships, he wrote the Star- Spangled Banner as a poem which would eventually become the National Anthem. Although he was a slave owner, and came from an old Plantation family, his thoughts during the battle were not about race, but about a nation in a perilous fight whose twilights last gleaming could end in rockets’ red glare with bomb’s bursting in air. It was his poem which spoke proof of the indomitable Americans spirit, embodied by those on the other side of the forts ramparts, who would withstand the onslaught of the world’s greatest power at the time. It was the respect of a flag which we so proudly hail as a symbol of overcoming what may so gallantly stream into our national awareness. Be it that we as a nation realize, as Francis Scott Key later did, that slavery was full of sin and a bed of torture, or that we as a nation recognize a day which gives honor to our veterans whose service and sacrifice have made this the land of the free and home of the brave!
No, our Star-Spangled Banner is not a racist song at all, it is our National Anthem, which all should sing with gusto as we admire the broad stripes and bright stars that will get us through the perilous fight.
John M. Scholte Assistant Professor of Religion and Humanities Veterans Day November 11, 2017
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