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Historical Moments Through a Political Lens #1: The Star-Spangled Banner

The Star-Spangled Banner is an inspiring tribute to bravery and stoicism. The poem was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy during the War of 1812 at the Battle of Baltimore Harbor. Key was inspired by the courage of the soldiers in the fort that survived through a night of constant shelling by British ships and the sight of Old Glory still standing and waving strong at morning light. The poem would become the official anthem of the United States in 1931.

Despite the Star-Spangled Banner being one of the great literary canons of American history, some critics of the poem find it to be a throwback to colonial America. U.S. Olympian hammer thrower Gwen Berry claimed in an interview with Black News Channel, “If you know your history, you'd know the full song of the national anthem. The third paragraph speaks to slaves in America”. She continued, “It's disrespectful and it does not speak for Black Americans.” Berry is not the only person to share this opinion. The Washington Post writer Gillian Brockell and American author Jefferson Morley appear to be favorable to Berry’s sentiments on the Star-Spangled Banner. Their criticism stems from one word in the poem found in paragraph three:

“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 washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.

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.”

That word is “slave”. Morley writes that this is a reference to enslaved Americans who took the British up on their offer to join the British Corps of Colonial Marines. In doing so, they would be offered land after their service. While Morley description is accurate, it cannot be extrapolated to make the normative claim that Gillian suggests and Berry asserts.

For starters, a poem consisting of 314 words being defined by one word used in passing is unintelligible. The word ‘slave’ is used in a descriptive sense. Key is not making a normative claim with the line “No refuge could save the hireling and slave”. This view is held by most scholars. For example, Musicologist Mark Clague states, “The reference to slaves is about the use, and in some sense the manipulation, of Black Americans to fight for the British, with the promise of freedom.” Not only is Clague’s argument more probable, but it is also consistent with Morley’s findings.

When analyzing the paragraph in which the word ‘slave’ is mentioned, it is illogical and unintelligible to walkway thinking Key’s covertly slipped in a racist agenda. The first three lines represent the sentiments of those in Fort McHenry during the bombardment. The line “A home and a country, should leave us no more” represents what the soldiers’ may have thought as they weather the night's siege by the British. As if to ask, what is this country I am fighting for?

Key’s expresses that the soldiers must have the courage to stand and fight. They will weather the bombardment through the night. In doing so, the soldiers as expressed under the symbol of the flag will triumph in the end. Thus, Key’s is contributing to that modernistic sense of American exceptionalism: the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Alternatively, critics of the Star-Spangled Banner will often point out that Key’s was a slaveholder, and thus his poem implicitly has racist connotations. Again, I would point out that the 314-word poem is centered around bravery and the courage to face the terrors of the night to rise in the morning victories. Thus, the plausibility that Key’s is really trying to stick it to some Americans with a descriptive reference rather than trying to capture and express the courage of the soldiers that stood their ground during the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the most powerful navy in the world at the time is conspiratorial ignorance. The critics that adopt this kind of conspiratorial thinking are trying to sell a narrative that is ahistorical. But I will be charitable and acknowledge it is creative fiction.

I find the history behind the Star-Spangled Banner and the poem itself to be inspiring. It reminds me of perhaps the most famous line in Shakespeare.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

Here, the American soldiers of the Battle of Baltimore Harbor, standing their ground in Fort McHenry, decided not to merely suffer the proverbial slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They took up arms against a literal sea of troubles, and by opposing them Old Glory remained waving at morning light. Giving proof through the night that our flag was still there. And because of those men and their stoic contribution to our country, we call America the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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