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Land of the Slave and Home of the Oppressor

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Our national anthem is racist.  There, I said it!  Think I’ll say it again: our national anthem is racist.

Not only is our national anthem racist: it’s author, Frances Scott Key, was a virulent racist.  These are the ugly facts.  They are uncomfortable facts for many white Americans, yet they remain the ugly facts.

The courageous decision of NFL star quarterback Colin Kaepernick to sit, now kneel, while someone sings our national anthem has brought these ugly facts to the surface.  Once again these ugly facts forced white Americans to look at its insidious slaveholding past.  And once again, white America is condemning the messenger.

Mr. Kaepernick inspired me to look closely at the national anthem and its author.  Before Mr. Kaepernick took his stand (no pun intended), the RevDrKevin Cosby, head of Simmons College and senior pastor of St. Stephen Church reminded us at the funeral of another once controversial athlete, Muhammad Ali, about offensive lyrics in the national anthem.  The offensiveness of the lyrics didn’t resonate with me as they did this time around.  Now, I will sit or kneel with Mr. Kaepernick when someone sings or plays the national anthem.  I’ll never again stand to honor that song.

I’ll go a step further: I believe every African American should support Mr. Kaepernick.  How can we stand in honor of a song that celebrates the slaughter of our slave ancestors?  That’s preposterous.  And why would any decent white American expect us to celebrate our enslavement?  That’s even more preposterous.  In case you’re unaware of the offending lyrics, read them below:

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave

Let’s be clear about another aspect of this protest: it is not about disrespecting the sacrifices of our brave armed forces and their families.  No, for Mr. Kaepernick the protest is about injustice and police brutality.  For me, it’s also about the offensive lyrics in the national anthem.  It has absolutely nothing to do with the brave men and women of the military.  They deserve our highest honor.  I’m a veteran.

Regarding Frances Scott Key, many argue that he was not a racist since he was supposedly a nice slave master who even freed several slaves.  These kind acts don’t absolve Mr. Key.  They may show he had some mild ambivalence toward slavery in his early life.  Perhaps they even show his heart was not completely reprobate.

Despite Mr. Scott’s defenders, he was a virulent racist.  He was a strong defender of slavery.  He viciously attacked abolitionists who worked to free the slaves.

As Christopher W. Wilson, of the Smithsonian Institute, says, “Key not only profited from slaves, he harbored racist conceptions of American citizenship and human potential. Africans in America, [Key] said, were: “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.”[1]

Mr. Wilson further said, “while Key was composing the line “O’er the land of the free,” it is likely that black slaves were trying to reach British ships in Baltimore Harbor. They knew that they were far more likely to find freedom and liberty under the Union Jack than they were under the “Star-Spangled Banner.”[2]

Ironically, as many white Americans today condemn Kaepernick, Mr. Key condemned and prosecuted a white abolitionist who took a stand against slavery.  What was the abolitionist’s crime upon which Key prosecuted him, in Key’s words, the abolitionist, “wished to associate and amalgamate with the negro.”[3]  Associating with blacks was the hideous crime in the racist heart of the man who wrote the racist song that blacks are expected to celebrate?

I must confess that I thought I knew the depths of racism wrapped up in our nation’s racist symbols; I guess not.  Hence, thank you Mr. Kaepernick for opening my eyes.

[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/wheres-debate-francis-scott-keys-slave-holding-legacy-180959550/#pdzTmWY3VK65T3LA.99

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.