In Defense of the National Anthem and Francis Scott Key

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The Francis Scott Key Monument in Baltimore. Courtesy WMAR Baltimore.

Today, Sept. 14, is the 203rd anniversary of the song that would become our national anthem.

Yesterday, a monument to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and to its author, Francis Scott Key — who lived in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. — was vandalized in Baltimore, birthplace of the song.

The words “Racist Anthem” were spray-painted on the stonework and base and a statue of Key was splattered with paint. Lyrics from the third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were spray-painted on the base and sidewalk, along with “slave owner.”

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh instructed city officials to clean it up. The statue is staying put, police are investigating and some Americans need an urgent history lesson.

The following is an amended version of a Georgetowner newspaper editorial of Sept. 14, 2016.

“Defence of Fort McHenry,” the original title of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” became a hit after the Battle of Baltimore, when the Royal Navy withdrew away from the harbor in September 1814. The fort took many mortar bombs and cannonballs, but the British could not pass.

Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key had sailed earlier with a federal official to meet the top British officers — Admiral George Cockburn and General Robert Ross — on their ship, seeking release of an American prisoner. They had to stay on their truce ship as the enemy launched the attack.

At first an opponent of the War of 1812, Key saw through the morning haze of Sept. 14 the flag still waving above Fort McHenry — an incredible, emotional revelation to him — in sight of the conquerors of Napoleon.

This is what is so powerful about the song: it captures how Americans felt about their 38-year-old nation. Its impact cannot be underestimated. To most people, the hand of God was at work.

Weeks before, on Aug. 24, 1814, troops of Ross and Cockburn burned the official buildings of fledgling Washington, D.C., after defeating the Americans at Bladensburg. The Brits entered the nation’s capital unopposed. All of Washington, D.C, Georgetown, D.C., and Alexandria, , D.C., were in panic. President James Madison fled to Virginia and then to Maryland. It was a national humiliation we can only imagine through the lenses of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, let us briefly respond to the likes of Colin Kaepernick, who refuse to stand for the flag, contending that this nation is racist — and a few who say the anthem is, too. They are within their rights as Americans to protest.

Some cite the third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for its use of the word “slave” as proof of racism.

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 washed out their foul footsteps’ 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.

Key wrote the stanza as an invective against the arrogant British, America’s enemy at the time. Yes, runaway American slaves fought with the British, but free blacks and runaway slaves fought with the Americans’ Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.

A slave owner, Key was conflicted about slavery. As D.C. attorney general, he prosecuted slaves, but also represented them in lawsuits to obtain their freedom — including one against Georgetown College. He was highly respected in the city and in the federal government. For his time, he ought to be perceived as progressive.

The accusation that the poem itself is racist is off the mark and lacks historical context. How is Key’s use of the word, “slaves,” who were part of the enemy force, offensive? How many texts contain the word “slaves”? In such excluding minds, what’s next? The sculpture in Francis Scott Key Park on M Street in Georgetown, next to Key Bridge? What about the equestrian statue of liberator Simón Bolívar, a slave owner, at 18th Street and Virginia Avenue, across from the Organization of American States?

We should not let the historiphobes frame such discussion for their narrow goals. Name one society, culture or civilization, going back to ancient Mesopotamia, which did not have its hands in some form of slavery. All have sinned — even in 2017 there are millions of people enslaved around the world.

In the nation’s capital, such a narrow, ill-informed opinion seems especially ironic, where Georgetown University has sought to atone for its slavery past and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened for all Americans, celebrates its first anniversary on the National Mall. These accomplishments are unifying and inclusive — unlike those exclusive, ideological special interests which decry history for their own benefit.

On this day, let us recall that unity we had for a moment 16 years ago this week during our shock and recovery from the destruction and loss of life in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia and take to heart, renewed, the fourth stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand,
Between their loved home, and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land,
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our Trust”;
And the star-spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. And you sound just like your president. And to the likes of you, let me ask you a question — were the slaves free when that song was written. Sure you had some fighting with the British and the Americans, but were all of them free. You see, they were not fighting for my ancestors freedom. They were fighting for their own freedom, while continuing to keep our ancestors enslaved. Just like Kaep is entitled to how he feels, you are too . . . so don’t try to knock him. One last thing, is there not police brutality going on in AmeriKKKa . . . the racists and their confederate flags are out in full force. Where is your article on that Mr. Devaney?

  2. A bunch of BS. So people should just accept that we have monuments up of people who contributed to the slavery of Black people. He should be considered progressive for his time you say? Typical response! No one today wants to take responsibility for their ancestors wrong doing. Meanwhile Black people are still dealing with the mistreatment and discrimination that our ancestors endured! Own up to your shit!

  3. I don’t understand Iman’s response about Whites taking responsibility for the actions of people that lived over 200 hundred years ago. If you hold this to be true Mr. “Iman”, then you should know that the first slave owner in the Americas was a Black man. Also, many slaves were sold to Slave traders on the African coasts by Black people. Slave trade is still ongoing today in many African nations. My question to you Mr. “Iman” is when are you going to take responsibility for your ancestors and your present people?

  4. Ok, if the National Anthem is racist, then America was founded on racism inasmuch as among the founding fathers, George Washington owned slaves. So as a disabled veteran who loves this country, I offer two solutions… Let’s eliminate Washington DC as the Nation’s capitol (since it was named after a slave holder) and move the seat of Government to COMPTON, California! Ice Cube will be the new president. Easy E can be Secretary of State. MC Ren Secretary of Defense, and Yella can be Secretary of the Interior. If that isn’t acceptable, then let’s abolish the Star Spangled Banner and the ENTIRE COUNTRY WITH IT! LETS RE TARGET OUR NUCLEAR ARSENAL AND NUKE OURSELVES!

  5. I don’t think America will ever get it. The wrongs of the past need to be made right today in our modernity! If FSKey was a progressive in the day and is ill thought of today, because of his slave-ownership, than take the monuments down. Trust me, the monument won’t care and this gives all free folk the ability to drive down the street without ‘in the face’ reminders of enslavement. I for one would like to see all monuments either be replaced, torn down, or renamed appropriately. And the fail safe argument that damn never everyone owned slaves is about as logical as ‘all the neighbors kick dogs’ so ‘I’m going to kick dogs too!” That’s crazy talk! No one gets to kick the dog! No one gets to be proud of having been a slave owner (black or white) either. And rename Washington DC…no one refers to it as such anyway…it’s usually referred to as DC. Folks, we are smarter than this, wake up, it is 2018 and it’s time we acted like it.

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