To be honest, I’ve always wondered how people of color feel about hearing the National Anthem or pledging allegiance to the flag. The National Anthem was written 50 years before the slaves were freed. Why should a person of color stand and put their hand over their heart for it in the first place?
To fully appreciate the American National Anthem you have to put it into context …
It was written during the war of 1812 (the forgotten conflict) by a lawyer named Francis Scott Key. The war of 1812 isn’t a popular war because it was a bit convoluted and not as noble as other American wars. We actually declared it on the British a mere twenty-three years after ratifying our beloved constitution. It was fought over shipping routes, blockades, Canadian territory, something to do with Napoleon and I’m sure a host of other complications I slept through in history class.
There were those who opposed as they called it, “Madison’s War” (referring to President Madison). One of those in opposition, was Mr Key himself. He had been an opponent of the war when it started, but through a strange turn of events, found himself negotiating a prisoner exchange on a British ship, overlooking Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, in September of 1814. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.
The British began bombarding the fort mercilessly. Contrary to most opinions, the Americans weren’t fighting back. They didn’t return any fire that night at all – the enemy ships were too far out of range. The Americans were dug in and simply taking a bloody beating. The “bombs bursting in air” weren’t American bombs of aggression, they were enemy bombs trying to annihilate the American stronghold. History says that all the lights in Baltimore were extinguished that night and the only light at all was that of the horrible deluge of cannon fire. I’m sure it was a terrible thing to watch.
Mr Key and his friends saw the bold stripes and bright stars waving proudly atop the fort from their ship, as the sun went down that twilight, in 1814. When the smoke was clearing the next morning, he strained through the early mist, to see if they were still there.
Our National Anthem is not a statement of blind, ignorant patriotism. It is a deep question …
“Oh say, can you see by the dawn’s early light – what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” …
Can you see it this morning? Can you see it through the smoke? Is it still there? The flag was raised last night when the sun went down. We saw it waving through the night …but, did it survive? Did WE survive?
“Who’s broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, oe’r the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming” …
They kept it flying – those beautiful, defiant sons-of-bitches kept it flying even though the city was blacked out and they could have taken it down to make their position harder to find …they kept it flying. My God, they kept it flying!
“And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there” …
All night long, the only way we knew it was there was through the violence being showered on it. The terror lighting up around it only made it more illuminated. When the bombs went off – we didn’t see an empty, dark, defeated sky – we saw hope in the wind …all night …no matter what. Thank God they kept it flying.
“Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave, oe’r the land of the free and the home of the brave?” …
Please tell me it’s still there! I haven’t agreed with it’s policies and actions, I don’t support it’s current leaders. But when the bullets start flying and the chips are down, I still need it to be there. I need those gaudy, tacky, primary colors to still be flying. I need the IDEA of America to still be there. I need to know there’s still a government of the people, for the people, by the people left on the planet. Is there still a place where the huddled masses can breathe free? Are there still those brave enough to fight for it? I need it to be there. The world needs it to be there. Tell me …is it there?
The melody resolves deceptively. But actually, Mr Key’s lyric never answers the question. And it is open ended to this very day.
It’s a question that must be answered by every generation. The founding fathers had to answer it by putting it all on the line. Abraham Lincoln answered it by winning the civil war and then losing his life. The doughboys answered it in the bloody mud of the western front. My grandfather answered it in the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima. Rosa Parks answered it by sitting wherever she damn well pleased. Martin Luther King answered it on the capital steps, in front of a million people, then later on a hotel balcony, in Memphis. Neil Armstrong answered it on the moon. John McCain answered it strung up by his two broken arms in Hanoi. Ronald Reagan answered it at the Berlin wall.
Is Colin Kaepernick answering it by sitting down when it plays? Maybe. But maybe he should remember that there are a few professions that are at the white-hot center of the American ethos. They are fully immersed in the system of America on every level. They cannot escape her protections and privileges: the pampered rock star, the successful entrepreneur …and, of course, NFL quarterback.
If you take snaps and throw passes on Sunday, you are – just by showing up for work – approving of feeding the western beast. You are a part of it. And when you are the main attraction, on AMERICAN TV, to households who buy products that pay for your air time and salary, who pay taxes in to a government you say you oppose, that props up a military you thumb your nose at, so you can play a game without fear of threat, because you’re being protected by a hoard of police officers you say are racists …you might just be the VERY thing you say you’re against.
If Colin Kaepernick wants to sit out the National Anthem, I couldn’t care less. It’s certainly his right. That country he seems to oppose so vehemently …gives him that right. But he won’t really be starting any meaningful conversations or making any meaningful statements until he stops participating in the system he’s now perpetuating.
My government and I are currently at odds. My government has let me and my songwriting brothers and sisters down on almost every level. I’m not happy with my government at the moment.
But I still fully participate in the American idea and ideal. And I rise for the National Anthem and put my hand over my heart when it plays. Because I still believe in those ideas and ideals …despite what people in America might do.
I still want to hear Mr Key’s question. And I still want the the answer to be YES!
So, before you sit down on the National Anthem …listen to the lyrics one more time.