The Blood-Spangled Banner: An Anthem for Slavery, Genocide and Empire

by Jon Schwarz and Sam Husseini

The U.S. was born in slavery and genocide, so it is no wonder that its anthem puts to music its claim to stolen land on behalf of the “free” – as opposed to the slave and the vanquished native. But the U.S. was also conceived as a White Man’s Empire, primed for endless expansion. Thus, the same anthem celebrates the defeat of the “turban’d head” of Muslims in North Africa. Two articles address the racist, imperial obsessions of Francis Scott Key.

 

Colin Kaeipernick is Right: The National Anthem is a Celebration of Slavery

by Jon Schwarz

This article previously appeared in The Intercept.

One of the key tactics behind the British military’s success was its active recruitment of American slaves.”

Before the preseason game last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When he explained why, he only spoke about the present: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. … There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Twitter then went predictably nuts, with at least one 49ers fan burning Kaepernick’s jersey.

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.

Few people know this because we only ever sing the first verse. But read the end of the third verse and you’ll see why “The Star-Spangled Banner” is not just a musical atrocity, it’s an intellectual and moral one, too:

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.

“The Star-Spangled Banner,” Americans hazily remember, was written by Francis Scott Key about the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812. But we don’t ever talk about how the War of 1812 was a war of aggression that began with an attempt by the U.S. to grab Canada from the British Empire.

However, we’d wildly overestimated the strength of the U.S. military. By the time of the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814, the British had counterattacked and overrun Washington, D.C., setting fire to the White House.

And one of the key tactics behind the British military’s success was its active recruitment of American slaves. As a detailed 2014 article in Harper’s explains, the orders given to the Royal Navy’s Admiral Sir George Cockburn read:

“Let the landings you make be more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage. … The great point to be attained is the cordial Support of the Black population. With them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British Troops, Mr. Madison will be hurled from his throne.”

“The U.S. government demanded the return of American “property,” which by that point numbered about 6,000 people.”

Whole families found their way to the ships of the British, who accepted everyone and pledged no one would be given back to their “owners.” Adult men were trained to create a regiment called the Colonial Marines, who participated in many of the most important battles, including the August 1814 raid on Washington.

Then on the night of September 13, 1814, the British bombarded Fort McHenry. Key, seeing the fort’s flag the next morning, was inspired to write the lyrics for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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.

With that in mind, think again about the next two lines: “And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The reality is that there were human beings fighting for freedom with incredible bravery during the War of 1812. However, “The Star-Spangled Banner” glorifies America’s “triumph” over them — and then turns that reality completely upside down, transforming their killers into the courageous freedom fighters.

After the U.S. and the British signed a peace treaty at the end of 1814, the U.S. government demanded the return of American “property,” which by that point numbered about 6,000 people. The British refused. Most of the 6,000 eventually settled in Canada, with some going to Trinidad, where their descendants are still known as “Merikins.”

Furthermore, if those leading the backlash against Kaepernick need more inspiration, they can get it from Francis Scott Key’s later life.

By 1833, Key was a district attorney for Washington, D.C. As described in a book called Snowstorm in August by former Washington Post reporter Jefferson Morley, the police were notorious thieves, frequently stealing free blacks’ possessions with impunity. One night, one of the constables tried to attack a woman who escaped and ran away — until she fell off a bridge across the Potomac and drowned.

“There is neither mercy nor justice for colored people in this district,” an abolitionist paper wrote. “No fuss or stir was made about it. She was got out of the river, and was buried, and there the matter ended.”

Key was furious and indicted the newspaper for intending “to injure, oppress, aggrieve & vilify the good name, fame, credit & reputation of the Magistrates & constables of Washington County.”

Jon Schwarz worked for Michael Moore’s Dog Eat Dog Films and was Research Producer for Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. He’s contributed to many publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones and Slate, as well as NPR and “Saturday Night Live.”
 

 

The Anti-Muslim Origins of “The Star-Spangled Banner”

by Sam Husseini

This article originally appeared on Sam Husseini’s blog, PostHaven.

“America’s march to Empire was minted in the crucible of anti-Islamic sentiment.”

As several writers have noted -- before and after the furor surrounding quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner" -- the national anthem is racist. Specifically, the third stanza: 

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.

Even less well know, the song originates in slaveowner Francis Scott Key's "When the Warrior Returns" -- which was set to the same tune. 

As Alex Cockburn, the deceased and much missed co-editor of CounterPunch noted following President Obama's much celebrated 2009 address in Cairo:

An early version of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key, written in 1805 amid the routing of the Barbary states, offered a view of Islam markedly different from Obama’s uplifting sentiments in Cairo:

In conflict resistless each toil they endur’d,

Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation:

And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d

By the light of the star-bangled flag of our nation.

Where each flaming star gleamed a meteor of war,

And the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.

Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave

And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.

In 1814 Key rehabbed this doggerel into the Star Spangled Banner. So America’s national anthem began as a gleeful tirade against the Mahommedans. And of course every member of the U.S. Marine Corps regularly bellows out the USMC anthem, beginning “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”

In short, America’s march to Empire was minted in the crucible of anti-Islamic sentiment. (One admirer of this early chapter in America’s imperial confrontations with Islam is that ardent Crusader, C. Hitchens who cites Joshua London’s Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, on the origins of the Star Spangled Banner.)

“Black recruits were in the party that burned the White House.”

I actually first learned of the racism from of the national anthem from Alex Cockburn's 1987 book Corruptions of Empire, which features a splendid cover

In August 1814, a British raiding party led by Admiral Sir George Cockburn launched an attack on Washington. They set fire to the Capitol, then proceeded to the White House and, before setting fire to it, consumed a meal set out by Dolly Madison which had been abandoned by the fugitive President and his family. Cockburn next proceeded to the offices of The National Intelligence to avenge himself on the press which had abused him. He ordered his men to destroy the paper's printing types, saying 'Be sure that all the Cs are destroyed so that the rascals cannot any longer abuse my name'. Cockburn then laid siege to Baltimore, the unsuccessful fusillades prompting the composition of 'The Star Spangled Banner', whose reference to 'the hireling and slave' in the British force alludes, as Robin Blackburn points out in The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, to the fact that Cockburn had offered freedom to all slaves who would join him in his attacks of 1813 and 1814. According to a British report these slaves conducted themselves very well and 'were uniformly volunteers for the Station where they might expect to meet their former masters.' Some of these black recruits were in the party that burned the White House"

Alex's brothers Andrew and Patrick have also written about this. 

This highlights the darkest heart of the United States, eager to assault indigenous people -- be they African or natives of what we call "America" or Berbers or Arab or whoever. Native Americans who are perceived as having been defeated can now be romanticized to an extent, while Arabs and Muslims who are not eager to roll over for U.S. establishment power are demonized. It also highlights that racism and violent nationalist identity are closely intertwined and attempts at separating the two may well be mere cover for both. 

Sam Husseini is founder of VotePact.org