We often go through life on automatic honoring certain traditions, celebrations, and customs with little or no thought. I decided to stop doing that starting with the National Anthem. Do you find its lyrics meaningful, inspiring? Do the lyrics make you feel a kinship with the people, a connection with the land, and cause you to appreciate the military? Does it make you appreciate freedom? Have you read it in its entirety?
I never thought about the lyrics until the fallout that ensued after professional football player Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the Anthem to protest racial injustice. Now that I have tuned in and woken up I want to share some history on the Anthem’s lyrics.
The lyrics were written by Francis Scott Key, a slave-owning lawyer who represented his fellow slave owners in court battles. In 1814, Key wrote a poem entitled “Defense of Fort McHenry.” It became the “Star-Spangled Banner” or America’s National Anthem. Key was inspired to express his feelings of gratitude the morning after he had watched “bombs burst in air” over Fort McHenry. The British were putting up a good fight during the battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. It must have looked terrible to Key from his position on a ship in Baltimore Harbor. Yet, “at the dawns early light,” he saw “the star-spangled banner yet wave.” That flag must have been a beacon of hope and a source of pride and inspiration for Key as an American citizen and patriot.
As an American of African heritage, I know that my ancestors were not celebrating as the bombs burst in air. They were toiling for a country that exploited their labor. There was no win and no freedom for them. They didn’t view America as the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
What’s sung at sports gatherings and on other occasions is the first verse which is a literal account of the battle and its aftermath. The song is limited in its scope. It glorifies the flag (freedom) and military might, but says little about the country, the land that is the United States, or the people.
In verse three, Key turns his attention to the slaves who joined the British to fight against America. Those slaves wanted freedom for themselves and their families. Key disparages them and disregards their desire for freedom. That flag, the literal Star-Spangled Banner, represented their capture and continued imprisonment in a system from which they had few options to escape. Therefore, if we honor our ancestors, can we, in good conscience, stand and show reverence for that symbol. I think a national song is a good thing, but not the current one.
The current Anthem is violent and obsolete and should be replaced by a song that is inclusive of all Americans and one which celebrates the beauty of land, the military and freedom. “America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates has been suggested by some. Bates was a professor who was inspired by this beautiful countryside as she traveled by train from Boston to Colorado Springs. People will probably not object to her background or her lyrics. “God Bless America” is a beautiful solemn prayer written by Irving Berlin during World War I. It was revised prior to World War II and considered for the Anthem. Some objected to it because Berlin was a Jewish immigrant.
I think “God Bless the USA” written by Lee Greenwood in the early 1980s would make a good Anthem. It has been suggested. It expresses love for country even after tragedy where everything is lost; sees the flag as the symbol of freedom; appreciates the military for gaining that freedom; and encourages patriotism among all Americans in each region of the country. In this current political and racial climate does it matter what the Anthem is? What does the flag as a symbol stand for anymore? What do you think? Be inspired for good.