A sensation this past weekend was the refusal of Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco Forty-Niners, to stand for the national anthem, on the principle that he was
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.
Some people were outraged, others supportive, in reaction to this. The 49ers themselves said that “we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem,” while the NFL claimed that “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.” I confess that I personally don’t care for this sort of activism – you’re a football player, paid millions of dollars to throw a football, and if you must bestow your pearls of wisdom upon us, save it for after the game, when you’re out of uniform – although I’ve often thought that we can save ourselves trouble by not courting it in the first place. Why do we sing the national anthem before sporting events? It’s not as though any national teams are playing or anything.
Having said that, I was curious to read an article claiming that “Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery” on The Intercept:
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.
Few people know this because we only ever sing the first verse. But read the end of the third verse and you’ll see why “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not just a musical atrocity, it’s an intellectual and moral one, too:
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.
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Americans hazily remember, was written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. But we don’t ever talk about how the War of 1812 was a war of aggression that began with an attempt by the U.S. to grab Canada from the British Empire.
However, we’d wildly overestimated the strength of the U.S. military. By the time of the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814, the British had counterattacked and overrun Washington, D.C., setting fire to the White House.
And one of the key tactics behind the British military’s success was its active recruitment of American slaves. As a detailed 2014 article in Harper’s explains, the orders given to the Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir George Cockburn read:
Let the landings you make be more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage. … The great point to be attained is the cordial Support of the Black population. With them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British Troops, Mr. Madison will be hurled from his throne.
Whole families found their way to the ships of the British, who accepted everyone and pledged no one would be given back to their “owners.” Adult men were trained to create a regiment called the Colonial Marines, who participated in many of the most important battles, including the August 1814 raid on Washington.
Then on the night of September 13, 1814, the British bombarded Fort McHenry. Key, seeing the fort’s flag the next morning, was inspired to write the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
So when Key penned “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,” he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.
More at the link. Although it’s somewhat silly to bring up the third verse, when nobody knows it, he’s right about the War of 1812: it was, in one respect, a war to preserve slavery (as was the Revolutionary War: contrary to Mel Gibson, it was the British who offered freedom to slaves in return for their services, not the colonists).
Of course, the Americans did have a point otherwise, and it is great that the ideals of the revolution, which were really quite radical for the eighteenth century, were eventually applied successfully to the question of slavery.