Reginald Dumas writes a weekly column for the Newsday.
The composer of the US national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, was Francis Scott Key, an attorney. He is reputed to have been an out-and-out racist, but when you read about him you may be forgiven for perceiving, at least superficially, a certain racial ambivalence.
He was, for instance, a slave-owner, but one who freed a number of his slaves. And certainly on one occasion he actually fought for the right of former slaves of a dead friend of his to obtain land — he was even called “the –---- lawyer.”
He was a founding member of the 1816 American Colonization Society (ACS), ostensibly established to return freed slaves to Africa. (The West Africa settlement that came into being as a result of those efforts is today’s Liberia. Its capital, Monrovia, is named after the US President, James Monroe, who encouraged this passage of blacks back to Africa. Thirty years before, a similar arrangement for British blacks had led to the creation of Freetown, now capital of Sierra Leone.)
So how, you might reasonably ask, could a man like Key be thought a racist? After all, he manumitted slaves; he argued their case in court; he sought to facilitate the “return” of ex-slaves to Africa (even if to parts of that continent different from the lands of their ancestors). How could he possibly be a racist?
As time went by, the ACS became increasingly abolitionist in its philosophy. Its real original raison d’être, however, seems to have been the fear of many slaveholders that too many freed slaves could be a destabilising factor in US society; their presence could have a “negative” impact on existing slaves, inciting the latter to revolt, or at the very least abscond. That would be extremely bad for business, and for the good and natural order of things. Monroe, a slave-owner himself, clearly agreed. Much better to send these people “back home.”
Key was of the same mind. “–---- lawyer” epithet or not, he in fact opposed abolition to the end of his days, and would make public comments which could only be construed as racist.
Addressing a jury in April 1837, for example, he asked: “Are you willing, gentlemen, to abandon your country, to permit it to be taken from you, and occupied by the abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the Negro?” Not, I would have thought, a hymn to freedom and racial harmony, and we must therefore ask: are such sentiments to be found in the anthem (it started life as a poem) he wrote for his country two decades earlier? The British-American war that had begun in 1812 was nearing its end, and Key’s composition was inspired by the resistance of American forces in Fort McHenry, Baltimore, to fierce bombardment by the British during the night of September 13/14, 1814.
On the morning of September 14 the US flag is still flying over the fort, and Key exultantly begins his poem/anthem: “O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light/ What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming/ Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight/ O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?” Understandably, it is a moment of great pride for Key: America has prevailed against the apparent odds. And he continues his paean in that vein.
But then, in his third stanza, Key’s poetic triumphalism descends abruptly into racial contempt and superiority. He writes: “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.”
I assume “hireling” to mean both the mercenaries that conflicts all over the world always attract, together with, in this case, Native Americans. The other words and sentiments do not need my analysis; their meaning is obvious.
To be a white Jehovah’s Witness has been difficult enough over the years. (But, all the same, whiteness has never lost its privileges, even in non-white countries.) If you were an African-American, however, would you feel comfortable with an anthem that — to use Colin Kaepernick’s words — so clearly disrespects “black people and people of colour”?
What would you do? Shrug off Donald Trump’s remarks? And General John Kelly’s revisionist version of your country’s history (thus your ancestors’ racially servile role in that history)?
Take action (not necessarily a knee) in the quest for the removal of the anthem’s offensive lines, and for the equality to “all” others with which your country’s Declaration of Independence affirms you were created, but which, nearly 250 years later, you only partially enjoy? Seek the support of your Supreme Court’s 1943 decision?