When I was a young child, we said the pledge of allegiance first thing every morning in school. I placed my hand on my heart and recited words I’d been taught, not giving much thought to what they meant or where they came from. We might have even sung the national anthem, I can’t remember.
Then some guy filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s right to require his child to swear under god or something, and we stopped pledging allegiance, and instead dived straight into some other form of indoctrination.
With all the recent hoopla about football players kneeling during the national anthem, it reminds me that symbols are no substitute for substance. And it is the substance of a thing that should inspire our fealty, not its avatar.
There was a time in this country when the song “Dixie” was a popular one, heard in both the north and the south without regard to the fact that many of its lyrics were astonishingly dismissive of the pain of forced labor and stolen lives. Or the lyrics of “Camp Town Races” -- with darkies capering happily in the fields -- that were regularly featured in popular culture not so very long ago.
And most people today understand why Americans of African ancestry whose forebearers arrived in this country in the holds of slave ships might not willingly sing songs such as these.
Not so much, apparently, in the case of the national anthem. Because most Americans don’t know the history of Francis Scott Key’s famous ballad, or the fact that one of its stanzas (as well as its author) very clearly demonized Black soldiers fighting for the British on promise of their freedom.
"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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s 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."
Apparently, the British freed runaway slaves to fight for them in exchange for their freedom and formed the Colonial Marines from their ranks. Shortly before penning the song that later became the national anthem, Key fought in the Battle of Bladensburg against the Colonial Marines and lost. The British then moved from Bladensburg into D.C. where they burned the Capitol.
So you see, Key had a particular hatred of these specific former slaves, and as was common for the time, believed Africans to be inferior versions of humanity who should know their place -- which wasn't as fighters in a war against his cause.
And he had the nerve to slam former slaves for seeking their freedom – in a war that was supposed to be about the colonists’ freedom from Britain -- in a song in which he declared his side to be the land of the free. Get real.
Forgive me if I don’t voluntarily croon a song where the blood of my freedom-seeking people will “wash out their foul footstep’s pollution.” Some of us are not voluntary Americans. But we are all here together now, so let’s not deny the past, let’s try to improve the future.
Remember when you were a kid or a young adult and realized for the first time that your parents were fallible human beings – something you had never previously considered possible? Well, so is this country.
Yes, its history is filled with tales of heroism and self-sacrifice – some of which may even be true. But it is also filled with screeds of hatred, lynchings, systematic torture, slavery, internment camps, land-grab thuggery, treaty-smashing treachery, genocide, and the soul-crushing oppression of the “other.”
So why not try to emulate our parents, who modeled their behavior on who they wanted us to be, rather on who they really were. They did that so that we would be stronger and braver and more noble of spirit and generous of heart than they were.
Why not reconcile with our checkered past, and embrace our higher angels? Why cling fast to a lie, when we could strive to make it true? Why not build this country’s reality from the ashes of its lies?
Until we can look at our country with clear-eyed realism rather than rose-colored mythology, we will be willfully blind to what has been made plain to its victims.
Some of us are not voluntary Americans, and until the woes of history are brought into the light so that they may be examined, treated and remedied, this country will never heal.