June 30 2021
In the news this week was the controversy regarding the black female olympic athlete who turned her back on the singing of the Star Spangled Banner.
Apologists suggested she was protesting the third verse of the anthem.
For the full lyric as written by Francis Scott Key see:
The question I ask myself is, how should the behavior of this woman be examined and judged?
Here is the verse in question:
“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. [I suggest: Their footprints on our land were expunged by their own blood.]
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, [I suggest: Mercenaries and subjects of a monarch fled from our country or were killed by free and brave men.]
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Recalling how difficult it was to learn to interpret the poet’s meaning in the abstractions and metaphors of the writing, I suggest that our first act might be to engage scholars to investigate and attest to the meaning of the verse at the time it was written.
For one thing, Key’s poem was written not during the civil war, though its imagery is often associated with the defense of Fort Sumpter against the South Carolina militia. It was written in 1814 about the “Defense of Fort McHenry” against the British attack during the war of 1812.
…”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?”
… Can only refer to the army of the British king in 1776, included in which were Hessian mercenaries – “hirelings?” – and arguably it was King George’s British subjects who were referred to by Key as “slaves”, when comparing their lot to that of the free citizens of the United States.
As a matter of fact, a primary trigger for the war of 1812 was British warships boarding unarmed American merchant ships at sea and “pressing” sailors into involuntary servitude in the British Navy. England claimed the right to do this because they asserted that the sailors were English and therefore subject to being “impressed” into involuntary military service at the whim of the king. This was at a time when the King’s “Press Gangs” roamed the waterfront drinking establishments rounding up mostly drunk men, who woke up in the morning miles at sea on a Navy ship, embarked upon years-long enlistments. Many British soldiers and sailors were, by American standards, “slaves”, and it seems quite possible to me that it is those slaves to whom Key refers.
Arguably, it is is the ignorant and uneducated who are unable to distinguish between completely different contextual meanings, and take affront because the poem uses a word that sounds “bad” to them. The defective mental process is roughly equivalent to that of people who become upset at the use of the adjective niggardly, which has nothing to do with the N-word.
Still, I suggest that various experts might be sought to confirm that in the anthem, “slaves” refers neither to people of color nor to slaves in America.
Yet perhaps we could cut some slack for people who did not understand this and are merely ignorant. On the other hand when they refuse to believe any other explanation and continue to be offended by and averse to the national anthem, I think it will be safe to assume they are among those just trying to pick a fight, and richly deserve to be ignored.
Again, if the scholars conclude that Key’s words do refer somehow to American slaves in the south, which makes no sense vis-a-vis the War of 1812, should we discuss cutting the verse out of the anthem?
For a black woman to shun the National Anthem because it mentions slavery is understandable, but in a way ironic, given that our first war, in 1801 was fought against slavery sixty years before the civil war, and that the slaves were white and the slavers brown Africans.
According to our oldest references, slavery has been practiced for millennia, usually involving the enslavement of captured members of one warring group or tribe by another. White Americans didn’t go into Africa and capture slaves. They bought people already captured and enslaved by one black tribe from another, and sold into the slave markets run by Muslim arabs in North and West Africa.
In the three hundred years leading up to the 19th Century, black and brown Arab Muslim pirates operating out of the Barbary states in North Africa had raided merchant vessels from Europe and America and had sold into slavery or ransomed between 1 and 1.25 million European merchant seamen. By 1801 they were demanding ransom for American merchant seamen equal to the nation’s annual budget, as well as extorting tribute, or “protection money” to avoid further attacks and enslavement.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had gone to London to negotiate with the envoy from Tripoli, asking why our ships were being attacked without provocation. They reported that the envoy had replied: “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”
Upon his election as President, Jefferson sent the Navy and Marines to fight, along with Sweden, on “the shores of Tripoli”, in the First Barbary War, to end the capture and enslavement of European and American merchant sailors.
On the other hand, I have just see references that indicate that Francis Scott Key was not only the product of a slave-holding, plantation family. He was a rich and powerful slave-owning lawyer with published opinions about the racial inferiority of African slaves in America. Which, for me, leaves the meaning of the third verse of his poem about the star-spangled banner open to serious question and possible pejorative interpretation. So I’m still not ready to criticize the black olympic athlete who shunned the anthem to make that point.
I will remain attentive to any thoughtful discussion of the matter.
One concept does cross my mind that I believe to be relevant. It is a key feature of certain personality disorders, for example Borderline and Narcissistic, to engage in a thing called “splitting”, which is to see other people, situations and ideas as either all good or all bad, excluding any middle options. Sometimes this is called “black and white thinking”, which might be an ironic clue into the nature of the present controversy, and which raises the question in my mind as to whether it is useful to limit ourselves to either revering or despising the founders of our nation – or the nation they founded.
It is natural for the human brain in its first few months of development to fail to understand the continuity of people and things from one day to the next, and to literally believe that the hateful parent who displays neglectful or abusive behavior today is actually a different person from the same parent who was yesterday nurturing and loving. However, it is a failure in the development of the wiring and architecture of the brain not to recognize, within the first year of life, that the same person may exhibit a spectrum of behaviors over a period of time, and they are not entirely characterized by any single one of them.
As this controversy progresses, I will be interested in the ideas of those whose brains have matured beyond seeing everything as black or white.