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Is the national anthem racist?
The California chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been moving to get rid of the U.S. national anthem. Alice Huffman, the president of the chapter, told a CBS station that,
“This song is wrong. It should have never been there, and just like we didn’t have it until 1931, it won’t kill us if it goes away.”
The main point of her believing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is racist is a lyric in the third verse that says,
“Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution … No refuge could save the hireling and slave … From the terror of light, or the gloom of the grave.”
In referring to that lyric, she concluded that, “It’s racist. It doesn’t represent our community. It’s anti-black people.”
This issue could be an outflow from the issue of the kneeling and protesting during the national anthem started by Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick and Huffman believe that the intentions behind it were misconstrued by turning it into debating whether it’s disrespectful to the flag and our troops. Huffman responded to the debate by stating, “The real intentions got overlooked, and it’s becoming something that divides us, and I’m looking for a way to bring us back together.”
Of course, not everyone buys into this. A veteran by the name of John Cox said, “It won’t solve any problem.” Another veteran by the name of Sydney Lugo mentioned, “I believe it is a slap across the face. Whether there’s some kind of flaw in the context of what this is, I don’t see it that way. I have to stick to our traditions and our values and what we represent.”
British historian Robin Blackburn believes the words “the hireling and slave” refer to the thousands of slaves that were freed by the British and ordered by them to battle in the Revolutionary War against their slave-owners in America. However, Congress eventually allowed them to serve on the American side during the war.
Five thousand free blacks and slaves served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. In 1778, several slaves who served in the war were granted their freedom in multiple states. American forces in the Revolutionary War included both blacks and whites.
Mark Clague, professor of musicology at the University of Michigan and founder of the Star Spangled Music Foundation, believes the national anthem “in no way glorifies or celebrates slavery.” During an interview for The New York Times, Clague noted that the national anthem isn’t about slavery. He said the lyric in question that mentions slaves was actually about the British manipulating black Americans to switch sides by promising freedom. Clague noted that the term “freemen” referenced in the fourth verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” encompassed both whites and blacks.
One could be concerned about ridding this country of the national anthem, as it has essentially been held sacred since most of us were born. I, for one, am concerned about the divisiveness regarding this issue and what it potentially could lead to. Clague noted that when Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1814 it wasn’t describing what America looked like at that time, but what he had envisioned the “unified force” the United States would become afterward.
When asked toward the end of the interview what he felt was the most important part of the national anthem, Clague explained,
“For me, it’s the punctuation that ends the part we sing. After ‘land of the free,’ we have a question mark, not an exclamation point. Is the flag and what it represents still there? Are we winning the battle for freedom that this country was founded on? That’s where Colin Kaepernick has started a productive conversation. If there are people who don’t feel the song represents them, we need to pay attention to that. But if we just reject the song as racist, or declare that it isn’t our anthem anymore, we don’t fix the problem.”