Photo by Christian Petersen

No One Should Stand for the National Anthem

Not when its ‘lost’ verse celebrates the widespread murder of African Americans

The lone fruit borne of the Colin Kaepernick shitshow is the history lesson we got from it. In case you missed it, here’s what’s what: With so much attention focused on “The Star Spangled Banner,” people decided to re-examine all four of the song’s stanzas — three more than you and I remembered existed — to validate the poem’s being worth the nationwide in-fight it spawned. This despite the fact that the national anthem and the perceived spirit behind it has nothing to do with Kaepernick’s protest. Still, some people want to protest the anthem itself. The Intercept explains why:

“Almost no one seems to be aware that even if the U.S. were a perfect country today, it would be bizarre to expect African-American players to stand for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Why? Because it literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans.”

Here’s that macabre celebration, in the third verse of the poem:

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.

Context, courtesy again of The Intercept:

“One of the key tactics behind the British military’s success [in the War of 1812] was its active recruitment of American slaves. … So when Key penned ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,’ he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.”

So America’s national anthem is inherently racist. This isn’t shocking. This isn’t appalling. America’s growth and racism are inextricably linked. That a song written during the time of slavery celebrates blacks being killed isn’t a surprise to black people. Yes, the obscured racism in the song is purposely hurtful, even if felt retroactively, but it’s less an issue than seeing black people being forced to pay the song respect or risk being ostracized. This is America’s bigoted heritage at work: forcing the oppressed into no-win situations.

Naturally, defenses of the anthem have been pouring in. The arguments are that Key’s poem isn’t racist, and that people are trying to apply 2016 sensibilities to an old issue for the sake of creating faux outrage. This is funny — to accuse others of stretching the poem’s meaning while trying to minimize it themselves. It further shows that Colin Kaepernick’s protests won’t change anything about America.

I do hold out hope, though, that Kaepernick’s stand could force a reconsideration of the national anthem. For the first time in memory, an honest annotation has made the rounds — alerting people to the anthem’s meaning and what they’re supporting when they recite it. “The Star Spangled Banner” is also, inarguably, less good than both “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” — two songs with wonderful refrains and without any overt celebrations of black people being murdered. If Kaepernick really wants to make himself useful, he’ll fight for that very change.

Last night, as promised, Kaepernick didn’t stand when the national anthem played. Before the game, a Navy vet named Leo Uzcategui called Kaepernick some profane names and threw some obscene gestures his way. Said Uzcategui: “I was in the Navy and I saw men and women bleed and die for this flag. If he wants to do something, go to some outreach program where he can do some good. And I get it, his First Amendment right. But you don’t sit during the presenting of the colors, and you don’t sit during the national anthem. That is not the way to do it.”

Uzcategui has a point — if you disagree with what a song represents, you don’t sit through its presentation. You get the shit replaced and start a new movement from there.

Alex Gray is a writer whose work has appeared in Deadspin, Salon and Paste. His last piece for MEL argued that the last person on earth who should be given a television show about race is Charles Barkley.

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