Racism in American National Anthem

Ask the Expert:

The Social Media has been aflame with Memes, gossip, speculation and allegations of blatant racism in the National Anthem of USA. This was news in major newspapers in support of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s on his refusal to stand for the national anthem before games as a protest against recent high-profile incidents of police brutality and racial injustice against black citizens.

Typical Memes are:
Wow. This I did not know.
Another thing I didn’t know: the Star Spangled Banner only became our national anthem in 1931.
So much for ancient American history. Hell, two living American Presidents are older.

KeyUSAanthem

Our Expert, US Air Force Veteran “Michael Donoho” writes this study in response to the allegations of racism.

Here in my left hand I hold facts.

Here in my right hand I hold the ability to make sense as I might with the facts.

Over there is someone attempting to play me with the facts.

Over here I can assert my independence and reject being played.

Francis Scott Key, a son of my native state of Maryland and descendant of English settlers, composed the words to a poem he entitled “Defense of Fort M’Henry.” It is believed he wrote the poem while held prisoner – in a very gracious manner we should know – aboard the English ship HMS Tonnant on the night of September 13, 1814. Key, an attorney, was aboard the Tonnant negotiating release of some prisoners, in particular Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlborough, Maryland. The British officers held him and a couple other Americans after they had dined cordially because the Americans had become privy to British attack plans in Baltimore harbor.

Key’s poem as it now stands was published in a Baltimore newspaper within the week. So whether Key entirely completed the poem while aboard the Tonnant, which seems odd, or not, it was finished within days.

Key took his poem to music publisher, Thomas Carr, then also of Baltimore, who would later relocate to Philadelphia, to be adapted to the rhythms of “The Anacreontic Song” the official song of London’s Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s club of musicians. The music to the Anacreontic Song had been composed by John Stafford Smith, who had himself composed the music for the Society’s poem as written by Ralph Tomlinson.

It had become a popular drinking song in America as well as England. Key, we believe, had chosen it for his poem, not Carr, as Key had done for a previously written poem.

“Defense of Fort M’Henry” came to be known as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and gained popularity competing with the earlier “Hail Columbia” – which had been composed for George Washington’s first inauguration. It would not become our official national anthem until declared so by President Wilson in 1916 and subsequently by Congressional Resolution signed by President Hoover in 1931.

Issue is being made about the national anthem because of the personal life and circumstances of its author, Key. He was the son of a slave owning family who had, himself, purchased slaves. His legal history as it pertains to slavery is not unusual for Maryland slave owners. In the 1830’s he freed his own slaves, retaining one such person as an employee whom he paid wages. This doesn’t make him virtuous. It’s absurd to think any Marylander, by the 19th Century, could have thought slavery was anything but wrong.

In his legal practice, Key represented clients on both sides of legal issues relating to slavery. He represented several slaves in court seeking freedom as well as slave owners seeking return of their run-away slaves. He was a founding member of the American Colonization Society which promoted the return of Africans to Africa as free men.

The third stanza of Key’s poem is as follows:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore, That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion A home and a Country should leave us no more? Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. 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.

These words are the source of the new debate because of the reference to slave. In the war we call the War of 1812, the British offered freedom to any slave who would come over and fight with them. Many did and many won their freedom doing so. There was good reason to believe many Maryland slaves were finding their way to Baltimore and to the British while Key was aboard the Tonnant.

In this meme, Shaun King writes “Blacks are a distinct & inferior race of people, the greatest evil.” – Francis Scott Key, Author of the Star Spangled Banner.

I think he paraphrases Thomas Jefferson, who in 1781 writing “Notes on the State of Virginia” said:

“To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.”

I can’t find Key having said or written as much.

For what it’s worth, which needn’t be much, I think King is being manipulative hoping to display clout by getting us to question our national anthem. I don’t believe he’s being an honest broker in this matter. I don’t believe he gives a hoot about the wording of the Star-Spangled Banner. He just wants to play us.

Sometimes we have to say bug off.

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