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  • Writer's pictureKayla Grant

Are the lyrics of the 'Star Spangled Banner' racist?

An anti-abolitionist slave owner wrote a poem in 1814 that would become the national anthem for the United States.

On March 3. 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a document that made the national anthem for America officially become “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Originally, the national anthem was a poem that was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 to celebrate the victory at the Battle of Fort McHenry.

Although the poem is four stanzas long, only the first stanza of a poem is used as the national anthem for the United States. The first stanza of this poem has been used as a symbol of pride and freedom for the American people.

Most African-Americans sing this song without knowing about or hearing the third stanza. The third stanza of this poem openly celebrates the death of African-American slaves, who were fighting in the war.

Here is the third stanza. Pay particular attention to the last four lines.

“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 and 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!”

“Hireling” is a derogatory term referring to a person employed to undertake menial work. Key believed that African-Americans were the inferior race. He owned slaves and used his legal skills to attack the anti-abolitionist movement.

In Aug. 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a football player, refused to stand during the singing of the national anthem at the San Francisco 49ers preseason games. Kaepernick’s actions did not get any attention until the third preseason game.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick said, when he was asked about the situation.

Kaepernick is using his platform to fight for African-American people. There has been so many cases of unarmed African-American people who have become victims of police brutality.

“This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t,” Kaepernick said.

Because of his protest, Kaepernick has been exiled from the NFL.

Kaepernick is not the only person to ever take a stand against the national anthem. In 1968, two U.S. Olympic athletes, named Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists on the medal stand as the national anthem played. This act was seen as disrespectful and they were thrown out of the Olympics.

Although many people view the third stanza of the national anthem as racist, others disagree. Mark Clague, a journalist for CNN, denies that the third verse is glorifying or celebrating slavery. He believes that the “hirelings and slaves” that Key wrote about were the black and white soldiers of the British army.

Clague gives an explanation for why the third verse is never mentioned in his article, entitled “'Star-Spangled Banner' critics miss the point.”

“The graphic language of Key’s denunciation of this British enemy led to the removal of verse three in sheet music editions of the song in World War I, when the United States and Britain became staunch allies,” Clague wrote.

The national anthem is supposed to be a song that brings together the American people. It is a song that people should feel proud singing; however, that is not the case. There are many suggestions for a new national anthem that would make everyone take pride in what they are singing and in their nation. Some suggestions for the new national anthem are “American the Beautiful” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Journalist Shaun King takes a different view. He once wrote, “While it has always been known that the song was written during American slavery and that when those words about this nation being the ‘land of the free’ didn't apply to the millions who had been held in bondage, few of us had any idea that the song itself was rooted in the celebration of slavery and the murder of Africans in America, who were being hired by the British to give them strength not only in the War of 1812, but in the Battle of Fort McHenry of 1814. These black men were called the Corps of Colonial Marines and they served valiantly for the British military. Key despised them. He was glad to see them experience terror and death in war — to the point that he wrote a poem about it.”

So, the next time that you stand for the “Star Spangled Banner,” be aware of what you are standing for.


This article is published in the Clark Atlanta University Panther. Visit the site by clicking here.

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