From day one, the United States has always struggled to walk its talk. In 1776, as the U.S. declared itself independent from Great Britain, the framers of said declaration noted that “all men are created equal.” But Thomas Jefferson, the lead author of the Declaration of Independence, owned men. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he compared Africans to apes. He had sex with an enslaved woman and kept her children in bondage.
This is not just me looking back 242 years and imposing my present-day worldview onto a different era — the hypocrisy was seen and known in real-time.
“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’’ English writer Samuel Johnson wrote in 1775. A year later, English abolitionist Thomas Day wrote, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature it is an American patriot signing resolutions of independency with the one hand and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”
We are expected to judge this nation’s early leaders on their words and not their deeds.
In other words, we are expected to judge this nation’s early leaders on their words and not their deeds. When it comes to the past, we’re supposed to basically do the opposite of what Martin Luther King Jr. said we should do in his “I Have a Dream” speech: actually overlook the content of someone’s character.
Here’s the thing, though: It appears that that’s easier for some people to do than others. I’m stuck. I am simply incapable of respecting someone who bought, sold, traded, bred, and forced human beings into a brutal life of slavery. It’s a disqualifier for me. And my guess is that, the less your ancestors were affected by such a practice, the less of a disqualifier it is for you. But some of us value black lives so much that we find it pretty hard to be wooed by someone’s otherwise brilliant words when they owned black people. Kind of like how it’s hard to marvel over the poetry of Nazis or the photographic skills of 9/11 hijackers. At some point your character, or lack thereof, gets in the way of your contributions.
Francis Scott Key, the author of what is now known as our national anthem, absolutely needs to be on the list of folks drummed out of polite company for their transgressions. He was a genuinely horrible human being. He was an open, flagrant bigot. He was not a silent bigot; he put his bigotry into words and actions.
Key said that African-Americans were “a distinct and inferior race of people.” Of course he thought that: He came from a long line of slaveowners. His family got wealthy off buying, selling, trading, breeding, and working human beings to death. He continued the practice himself and owned human beings for most of his life. Not only that, but as the district attorney of Washington, D.C., Key fought against the rights and human dignity of black people every chance he got. In case after case, he fought against the rights of abolitionists and sought any means available to silence them.
All the way back in 1833, Key was defending heinous incidents of police brutality against African-Americans. The man fought to protect slavery until the day he died. He was no timid beneficiary — Key fought tooth and nail to protect it.
I have a problem with Francis Scott Key. I don’t care how great his poetry may or may not have been — I see him as evil.
All of that results in me having a problem with Francis Scott Key. I don’t care how great his poetry may or may not have been — I see him as evil. I see slavery as an evil institution. Participating in it, for Key, was not a one-time choice, but a gross daily decision to benefit from and defend at all costs.
When he wrote a poem based on his eyewitness account of the War of 1812, it makes perfect sense that his absolute loathing of free black people found itself into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There, Key gleefully wrote about the murder of enslaved Africans that had been enlisted in the fighting. Their deaths were a highlight for him. The poem says:
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.
This poem bothers me. Again, this is not me viewing the 19th century through a 21st century lens. It bothered abolitionists of the day. They, too, were irked by how easily the deaths of enslaved Africans could be celebrated in the same stanza in which this land was hailed as “the land of the free.” Abolitionists even created other songs to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that spoke of the true pain and costs of slavery and how desperately freedom was desired.
There’s a reason why this history is so important. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started his demonstration during the national anthem to protest the repetitive cycle of systemic injustice and police brutality in this nation. It did not feel right to him to stand up to a song full of empty promises.
Kaepernick is not alone in the annals of sports. Jackie Robinson, in the final years of his life, in 1972, reflected back on injustice in this nation and said, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag.” And he was a veteran who gave years of his life in the military. It all ringed so hollow to him.
And it does to me as well. I am a man. I have a brain. I have a heart and soul. My fight in this country is against injustice. The same is true of Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid and so many other NFL players who’ve taken a knee. But something weird has happened where it’s now seemingly politically incorrect to say that anybody is protesting the anthem.
So let me say it: I am protesting the anthem.
I am protesting its deeply bigoted author — who owned human beings for convenience and profit.
And I am protesting injustice in this nation on behalf of so many families that continue to experience systematic racism, police brutality, and inequality — all while others expect us to get up and sing with a heart full of happiness.
I’ll take a pass.