Gentle Readers, I can probably count the times I’ve given the Star-Spangled Banner serious thought on one hand. I also don’t get sports and have a strong hostility toward patriotism of any species. Most of the social rituals humans use to build community strike me as some mix of alien and horrifying. Other people disagree. So long as no one mistreats someone else, we can differ and get along just fine. This probably all disqualifies me from having much of use to say about Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem. He explained his decision better than I could:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
All that actually happens, so in an honest country we might hope for some thoughtful consideration. Kaepernick’s and athletes’ similar decisions might, in a nation fairly obsessed with sports personalities, prompt a general movement to change or drop the whole tradition. I don’t know if such an honest country does now or ever has existed, but Americans don’t live in it either way.
Everybody who goes to school in America learns the story: Francis Scott Key is on a British ship in Cheasapeake Bay. The British have come to take Baltimore and bombard Fort McHenry. Key doesn’t know how it’s gone until he sees the flag still above the fort. He writes a poem soon set to music. There you go. Most of us probably know that it has more verses, but who reads that stuff? The song ends with the first stanza. That stripes it of almost the entirety of its meaning, rendering the national anthem a band, uninspired affair concerned entirely with the fate of a piece of cloth.
The rest of the poem says something interesting, which precluded its use as a nationalist totem. Key, like everyone else, wrote very much in his moment. The moment in question came, as we all learn in grade school, in the War of 1812. The Royal Navy raided up and down the American coast, sometimes penetrating quite deeply into the countryside. There perfidious Albion found allies. I recall the American Indians mentioned in passing, but not a word about the ones that got Key worked up. In the Chesapeake and points south, the preeminent British allies came in the form of the nation’s slaves. They believed that Britain would liberate them and volunteered as scouts and guides for British raids. Those raids soon ended up at their former homes, liberating loved ones. This required bravery, but the occasion involved no home of freedom. All in all, the United States lost thousands of slaves this way. Most later found homes, as free people, in Canada or the West Indies.
In a nation that really valued freedom and the fight against oppressors, we would celebrate those men as the best of Americans. They would have done the most American of things: fought white, their enslavers, and those enslavers’ government, for freedom for themselves and those dear to them. No one missed the point at the time, least of all a Marylander enslaver like Key. He took the inspiration for his third verse in part from their story:
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.
Come the Civil War, Confederate soldiers rarely respected surrenders by United States Colored Troops. Those men had engaged in servile rebellion and deserved death, either handed out at once in a massacre or done later on by some state authority. Key clearly thought the same and wrote celebration of the deaths of black soldiers into his poem. They would have nowhere to hide; they must flee or die. It says that in as many words.
Some white Americans have gotten into an uproar because Colin Kaepernick doesn’t want to stand up for a flag that flies over more recent injustices. They insist that white people, usually men, have the absolute power to decide what anybody they don’t deem white can do, say, or feel about actual injustices they have suffered at the hands of whites. Maybe they didn’t read the rest of Key’s poem -who does?- but they have the idea. In contemplating a piece of fabric, they have correctly understood the history of their country and chosen to act in keeping with its traditions. They too could not be more American.