“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.”
These seemingly cryptic lyrics are from the third Stanza of the “Star Spangled Banner,” written by American lyricist and poet Francis Scott Key. The lyrics, originally penned under the title “Defense of Fort M’Henry,” refer to his experience during the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. In 1916, the year of my grandmother’s birth in Edgefield, S.C., President Woodrow Wilson designated through executive order that this historical hymn would become the national anthem, all while segregating federal agencies and kicking out civil rights leader William Trotter from the White House. In 1931, the U.S. Congress officially recognized the “Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem and signed it into law.
Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, marks the 525th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ stumble into the islands known today as the Bahamas. I think the third stanza of America’s national anthem represents perfectly what the papacy, King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus (original Cristóbol Colón, Spanish pronunciation) intended for this so-called New World to Europeans. Key not only brilliantly captures the physicality and fervor of “bombs bursting in air” but also the reality that existed at the time that references slavery and indentured servitude. The current atmosphere of street protests, racial tensions, protests in sport (surrounding the flag and national anthem), mass shootings and the overall downtrodden emotional environment that Americans are experiencing provide perfect timing for a re-analysis of the pillars and underpinnings of the nation. The power of a democracy is in the critique of current systems, leadership and beginnings. If a democracy is to survive, only through constant self-reflection and critique will that happen.
Frederick Douglass asked in the late 19th century, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” I think this question has not been deconstructed enough by African-Americans or by American society as a whole. The reality in the United States is that the general sentiment in regard to African-American angst and rightful anger about racism and white supremacy is that they should “just get over it.” “That was in the past.” “We’re in a post racial society.” They should just get over it and be “good Americans” just like everyone else. “They would have been living in huts and would have been starving with the other Africans if us noble and civilized whites had not saved them from their savage selves.”
This type of thinking has led to an America that is not “great,” an America that 152 years after the end of the Civil War still has not made good on its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans, has broken promises made to African-Americans during Reconstruction and has broken most if not all treaties with the indigenous people of this land.
Columbus’ “discovery” of America is America’s original sin, not slavery. It is the underpinning lie that has permeated all politics in this nation. This house heavy with sin is built on stilts of bamboo and it seems to be buckling under all of the weight of the myths and the lies that it has been built upon. As the nation debates whether statues of confederates and infamous figures such as James Marion Sims should be taken down and if kneeling in protest of Black men being gunned down by the state is anti-American, we forget why it has always been in vogue to debate topics that are clearly inhumane. America built on this lie has built up a belief that it is the moral compass and police of the world. In particular, Americans believe that they are the greatest people to ever inhabit the Earth. The mythos of the greatness of America’s discoverer in chief and its founding fathers has tainted the lens through which most of us look at America. This myth has hindered our development, has stymied our progress in every way imaginable. Our first school lessons of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree is a lie simply because George Washington and his poor family never owned a cherry tree.
On this 525th anniversary of the cornerstone of American lies, let us remember Estavanico, an African explorer who helped the Spaniards map much of the West, the enslaved African women who sewed the original American flag for Betsy Ross, the millions of African lives lost in the European slave trade and the millions of indigenous people who were systematically wiped out through war, destruction and disease.
We must not run from our truths but run to them. This way is the only way to become great not again, but for the first time in history. We must encourage our children to be truthful, but it cannot be done with lies. We must encourage them to be moral but not with immorality. We can encourage them to be patriotic not with false empty gestures to a flag, but rather with real organized political actions and protests of things they believe are wrong and need to be changed. We should not hide these truths that are evident in the age of information. We should use them as fuel to change our present to create a greater future. Instead of hiding away the third stanza of the “Star Spangled Banner,” we should expose it for the scourge that it represented, and then choose a new song that truly represents all of us. Instead of no refuge for the hireling and slave, we should become a true refuge for those within our borders who are still treated as such.
Oh say can you see the truth from the lies that changed America from a nation of lies? Taking knees to protest Black men hung from trees. As a million women march to rally against the commander in chief, I wonder when will the bombs burst overhead on sexism, racism and hate. Will the lies end by the dawn’s early light? I wonder.