When we learn the history of the anthem, it is shocking that we would expect anyone at all, let alone Black folks, to stand for 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'
The United States of America's national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, is rife with symbolism related to slavery and imprisonment. Despite this, American citizens believe it is an honor, and indeed a duty, to stand for the national anthem. Perhaps this represents the country's unequivocal dedication to, and fierce inability to separate from, its White supremacist beginnings. Originally a poem by the title of The Defense of Fort M’Henry, the anthem recounts how enslaved Black folks were manipulated into fighting a war that they most definitely would not win. A deep dive into its racist origins and background reveals why it took more than a century after it was written for it to become the national anthem, The Washington Post reports.
The anthem's author was a 35-year-old lawyer named Francis Scott Key. He found himself aboard a ship of the British during the War of 1812's third year. The British had taken prisoners, including a popular doctor from Prince George’s County in Maryland. The lawyer, his dear friend, had climbed aboard waving a truce flag in order to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Royal Navy. Key was successful but overheard plans for a surprise attack on Baltimore. Barred from leaving the ship until after the attack was over, he ended up witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry. He could not tell who had won, but at dawn he saw the American flag waving over the fort. This is what inspired the original The Defense of Fort M’Henry.
While this sounds like a story of victory and patriotism, we must remember the war occurred at a time when the British practiced impressment, that is, the forced conscription of American sailors (including, in particular, enslaved Black folks) to fight for the Royal Navy. In addition to this, the British had made a promise to enslaved Black people: refuge to those who escaped their enslavers. This caused anxiety among White Americans, who feared a large-scale revolt. As many as 4,000 enslaved Black people escaped, many returning to Trinidad and Tobago to resettle with their families. The anthem, then, can be seen as a threat to Africans who took the British up on their offer, especially when analyzing the second half of the third verse.
"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."
Even if experts disagree about whether these lines can be read as racist, there is no doubt that Key definitely was. Not only was he a descendent of a wealthy plantation family, but he also called Black folks "a distinct and inferior race." Furthermore, he was only in support of emancipation if those enslaved were immediately "shipped" to Africa. The lawyer spent much of his time during the Andrew Jackson administration, while he served as the district attorney for Washington, DC, shoring up his and other enslavers’ power. He strengthened slave-owning laws and prosecuted abolitionists who passed out mock fliers calling his jurisdiction the "land of the free, home of the oppressed."
Due to the overt racism in Key's poem-turned-anthem, The Defense of Fort M’Henry was not made the national anthem for dozens of years. However, it soon gained popularity among post-Reconstruction White Southerners and the military. Eventually, in 1931, President Herbert Hoover officially appointed it the national anthem. Jefferson Morley, author of Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835, commented, "The elevation of the banner from popular song to official national anthem was a neo-Confederate political victory, and it was celebrated as such. When supporters threw a victory parade in Baltimore in June 1931, the march was led by a color guard hoisting the Confederate flag." And today, despite all this, we still expect Americans, especially Black Americans, to stand for The Star-Spangled Banner. Shame on us.