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Deconstructing the national anthem

Photo courtesy of flickr user Sam Howzit

Colin Kaepernick ignited a heated conversation over race and patriotism with a simple gesture involving the national anthem.


We’re all familiar with the song; it’s played at the beginning of major sporting events in the United States.

Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics during the War of 1812. After the British army burned down the White House and Congress, they tried but failed to destroy Ft. McHenry in Baltimore. Key witnessed the assault and was inspired to record his thoughts in poetry. His words were set to a drinking song, and more than a century later they were declared our national anthem.


The part that we always hear is the first verse:


“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?"


We almost never hear the rest of the poem written by Key, who was a slaveowner. Some of those words include a reference to slavery:


“No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”


On the surface, those lyrics appear to express support for hunting down runaway slaves. But given the context of the time and place the poem was written, many historians say they more likely refer to the way the British military used mercenaries and slaves to fight against the United States.


But there’s something else. The poem wasn’t finished. In 1861 another verse was added by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. — a writer, educator, and father of an eventual Supreme Court Justice. It goes like this:


“When our land is illumined with Liberty's smile,
If a foe from within strike a blow at her glory,
Down, down with the traitor that dares to defile
The flag of her stars and the page of her story!
By the millions unchained who our birthright have gained,
We will keep her bright blazon forever unstained!
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
While the land of the free is the home of the brave."


In his updated verse for the national anthem written at the onset of the Civil War, Oliver Wendell-Holmes wrote that the flag stands for freeing the slaves.


Like a holy book, the meaning of the words has changed over time.

This originally aired in November of 2016. 

Crosscurrents Colin Kaepernick
Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.