The lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key embraced the pop cultural tastes of his day when he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” to commemorate an American victory over the British at Baltimore during the War of 1812. He gave his composition broad appeal with a melody derived from a popular British music club anthem that celebrated the virtues of love and wine.
Satirists pounced, lampooning the song with lyrics that depicted a man who staggers home drunk and sleeps well past “the dawn’s early light” — that light through which Key had seen an American flag still flying above the fort that had repulsed the British invasion.
Abolitionists during Key’s lifetime viewed “The Star-Spangled Banner” as they viewed the nation as a whole — through the lens of the injustice perpetuated by slavery. They argued that Key should have described America as the “land of the free and home of the oppressed.”
The professional football player Colin Kaepernick appealed to that same sense of injustice last year when he knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police violence against African-Americans. By doing so, he tapped into a feeling of alienation from the anthem in the black community that dates back to the days of racial terrorism and lynching in the South.
Congress declared “The Star-Spangled Banner” the national anthem in 1931. Well before then, however, black communities across the Jim Crow South were instead embracing the soaring, aspirational lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — otherwise known as the Negro National Anthem — which was sung in churches, at civic events and even in schools, where substituting the song for “The Star-Spangled Banner” was a quiet act of rebellion against the racist status quo.
By the late 1960s, many of us who had grown up black in an era when African-Americans were locked into Northern ghettos and murdered in the South for seeking the right to vote registered our grievances by refusing to stand for the anthem at sporting events.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” became what the Princeton University scholar Imani Perry describes as a tale “of endurance, lament and supplication” that acknowledges the cruelties of racism while also pointing toward transcendence: “Lift every voice and sing/Till earth and heaven ring/Ring with the harmonies of Liberty/Let our rejoicing rise/High as the listening skies.” As Ms. Perry writes in “May We Forever Stand” — her forthcoming history of the song — it spread rapidly through black America in the early 1900s, reflecting a growing sense that the promise of full citizenship in the nation’s canonical texts simply did not apply to African-Americans.
The provenance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is itself deeply suspect. Key, who owned human beings, penned his celebration of freedom during a war in which the British had promised that very thing to enslaved African-Americans who agreed to fight on their side. The third stanza of the song — which ceased to be sung once warm relations were re-established with England — can be read as a reflection of Key’s anger at Britain’s overtures to the people he himself owned.
The passage reads in part: “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.” Contemporary thinkers disagree on whether the word “slave” was used as a generic insult that could be applied to people of any race or as a direct reference to African-Americans who joined the British side in the War of 1812. But imagine yourself an enslaved person serving refreshments to your masters and their guests as they all retire to the piano room to sing Key’s song as he had written it. There can be little doubt about what the passage referring to a “slave” would mean to you.
The histories of the white and black anthems are strikingly different. James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900 to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at a time when the government seemed to have abandoned altogether the promise of Reconstruction. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, had validated the doctrine of “separate but equal.” As the historian Cecilia Elizabeth O’Leary writes in “To Die For: The Paradox of American Patriotism,” the door had been opened for racists and nativist groups like the Ku Klux Klan to appoint themselves custodians of what it meant to be an American.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” began as an ordinary song that competed with other songs for space in the American imagination. It was not until the early 20th century that it acquired the stature of a sacred writ and became, in effect, a loyalty test and an excuse for people who called themselves patriots to harass and beat people who dissented from the song’s message.
The truth is that the maxims about freedom implied in the song describe a condition the country has yet to achieve. People who confront that reality by kneeling prayerfully on the football field are often more determinedly patriotic than those who reflexivel