By now, most people have heard about the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was mostly berated for refusing to stand for the traditional pre-game singing of The Star-Spangled Banner in protest of oppression that he feels is rampant throughout the country.
Most were quick to point out the irony and hypocrisy of Kaepernick taking a stand figuratively, while refusing to stand literally.
Others defended Kaepernick’s protest because that is exactly what the American Flag stands for — the right to voice your opinion regardless of it being offensive.
Some of his defenders even made a point that The Star-Spangled Banner is extremely racist, and shouldn’t reflect the present bloodline of the modern America.
Mark Clague, who is a musicologist and professor of music history, American culture, African and Afro-American studies, and entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, says that our iconic song’s racism is distorted and exaggerated.
Clague also serves as the founding board chair of the Star-Spangled Music Foundation, dedicated to the anthem’s history, and is also writing a book on the song and its history.
Mark Clague wrote:
“’The Star-Spangled Banner’ in no way glorifies or celebrates slavery. The middle two verses of Key’s lyric vilify the British enemy in the War of 1812, what Key refers to in Verse 3 as ‘hirelings and slaves.’
This enemy included both whites and blacks, largely British professional soldiers (hirelings) but also the Corps of Colonial Marines (slaves). The Colonial Marines were escaped black American slaves who joined British forces because of the promise of freedom in return for fighting their former masters.
Fortunately, Britain honored this promise after the war, relocating the former slaves and their families to Halifax and Trinidad. For Key, however, the British mercenaries were scoundrels and the Colonial Marines were traitors who threatened to spark a national insurrection.
The graphic language of Key’s denunciation of this British enemy led to the removal of Verse 3 in sheet music editions of the song in World War I, when the United States and Britain became staunch allies.
Yet in 1814, Key’s lyric honored American soldiers both black and white. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ celebrates the heroes who defended Fort McHenry in the face of almost certain defeat against the most powerful gunships of the era.
America’s soldiers included mainly whites, but also free and escaped blacks. Escaped slave William Williams served in the US infantry at Fort McHenry and was killed by a fragment of a British bomb.
Another escaped slave, Charles Ball, wrote in his memoirs of being among the American soldiers of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla who courageously repelled a night attack and saved the city.
‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ thus honors American military heroes, black and white, without regard to race. In this respect, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is not racist.”
It is worth mentioning that the song’s author, Francis Scott Key, was an attorney in the District of Columbia at the time, and he owned seven slaves through his life.
Like many people during that time, “Key was not an abolitionist, yet he was not an ardent supporter of slavery either. “
Clague also wrote:
Key was not an abolitionist, yet he was not an ardent supporter of slavery either and is better understood as one dedicated to ending slavery.
Key freed four of his slaves in 1842. To one, Clem Johnson, Key offered to provide a ‘home until his death.’ As a founder and officer of the American Colonization Society (1816–1864), Key viewed slavery as a moral wrong that required a solution.
And although Key defended slave owners in court for the return of their slaves, Key also risked his reputation as a lawyer many times to help slaves sue for their freedom.
Maybe The Star-Spangled Banner is an imperfect reflection of our times, but Key was trying to capture a reflection of that moment in history.