The racist education that most Americans receive has left them angry or perplexed by the refusal of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s to stand for “The Star Spangled Banner” during recent NFL preseason games. Those feelings only increased after Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane sat down during the anthem Thursday night.
What many people don’t realize is that Africans in America were enslaved at the time of the writing of that song. They don’t realize that the song was written by a proponent of African slavery, Francis Scott Key, and that the British in the War of 1812, when Key wrote the song, promised freedom to any black slave who fought on their side.
This promise was also made during the Revolutionary War, and in both cases the British freed thousands of black slaves who fought against the American colonies that had enslaved them.
Therefore, they don’t understand that the anthem and flag were viewed by blacks at the time — and some yet today — as symbols of white racism. Their racist education has not allowed them the knowledge that blacks created an alternate national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is representative of the black struggle for freedom that was denied them under the banner of the Stars and Stripes and later under the Stars and Bars.
This song is more than 100 years old and represents the view that “The Star Spangled Banner” was not referring to Africans in America when it spoke of the “home of the free.” It would be madness to think blacks would take pride in a song that was supposed to represent freedom while in fact it was created when my ancestors were in slavery.
In the 1960s and 70s, many African Americans refused to stand or sing the white national anthem. Or we would deliver a Black Power salute and bow our heads in mourning, ala Tommy Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics. This was a dangerous act while attending a baseball game on the South Side of Chicago in Comiskey Park, the site of segregated neighborhoods that stoned Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers.
When I was a campus minister and graduate student at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, I attended an event at a church across the street from the university. A musician from the AACM (African American Creative Musicians) had been invited to play the white national anthem on his saxophone.
During his rendition, he interspersed it with a riff from the Civil Rights marching song, “We Shall Overcome.” He did it so seamlessly that most people probably didn’t recognize what he had done. But the black folks there looked at each other in appreciation.
I hope that we support Kaepernick’s stand and use it as a moment to decolonize the racist education that is the American educational system until we indeed have overcome. Or as Langston Hughes put it: “One Day America will be.”
Donald H. Matthews is a consultant, author and semi-retired professor who has taught religion and social sciences. He lives in Tacoma.