The Untold History of The Star Spangled Banner

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Eddie Conway and Gerald Horne explore the forgotten history of the U.S. national anthem as Baltimore celebrates its 200th anniversary

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: The nation’s eyes were on Baltimore this past weekend as it marked the 200th anniversary of the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. But former Black Panther Eddie Conway, who was released six months ago from prison after serving 44 years for supposedly killing a police officer, says one has to look no further than “The Star-Spangled Banner”‘s author for the mainstream narrative to become problematic.

EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. BLACK PANTHER, BALTIMORE CHAPTER: It’s important to recognize that the whole concept of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is, like, built on hypocrisy. First place, Francis Scott Key, who was a lawyer, even though he was in captivity at the time by the British, he spent most of his life defending slaveowners, white supremacy. He spent a lot of his time prosecuting abolitionists, fighting against people that were trying to get freedom for black people.

NOOR: The Baltimore Sun reported that more than $7 million was spent on putting on the festivities, including over $1 million for just visiting ships and fireworks. Another estimate put the cost of jet fuel alone for the military’s Blue Angels that were present in the skies over Baltimore, at $72,000 per hour. Conway says this sheds light on the city’s priorities at a time of record homelessness, underfunded schools, and closed rec centers.

CONWAY: I think the priorities of the governing bodies in America have always been misplaced. I think that people of color who has been placed on the bottom have been used and exploited to build America and the American dream for other people. The fact is that only the things that entertain certain segments of the population and only the things that enrich certain industries are supported, and the things that would help people and help make people whole, make people human, help people survive the ordeals that they face every day, they’re not getting funded, they’re not getting recognized. So we are looking at one of those things that–I think Julius Caesar says this best is to give them circuses, give them bread and circuses. And in the case of America, there’s, like, food stamps and Blue Angels flying over. But the infrastructure’s collapsing, there’s huge poverty in the community.

NOOR: Others are also trying to shed light on the bicentennial’s anniversary. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum is exploring how the flag has been used and interpreted through the ages.

ASANTEWA BOAKYEWA, CURATOR, RICHARD F. LEWIS MUSEUM: It’s important, we feel as a museum, to exhibit this exhibition now because of the 200th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag. Not many Americans know that there was an African-American girl named Grace Wisher, who was 13 years old, an indentured servant in the household of Mary Pickersgill, who was the Star-Spangled Banner Flag maker.

NOOR: No known contemporary artwork credited Grace Wisher with her contribution. Her image is drawn in in outline on this painting.

BOAKYEWA: Throughout our history as a country, we know that there is a legacy of certain groups, including African Americans, who have been excluded from the major historical narrative, right, and also from the historical memory. So, as an African-American museum, we position ourselves to shed light on these untold stories.

NOOR: Much of the artwork on display highlights the experience of marginalized communities.

BOAKYEWA: The painting is titled Bang by the artist, Kerry James Marshall, who’s an African-American painter. The inclusion of the work–we wanted to open the show in the period of the Revolutionary War to highlight African-American participation in that, the nation’s first war. So although Kerry James Marshall is a contemporary artist and this is a contemporary work, we thought that this painting best captured sort of the duality of experience as African Americans. So you see that the children here are saluting the flag. The young girl is holding the flag. But, if you notice, around the young girl there is a hose that’s wrapped around her, and you see smoke that’s coming sort of around the grill. But that is a reference to the civil rights movement and the way in which African-American protesters were hosed the streets for their protest against segregation in the South.

NOOR: The museum is also remembering the Bicentennial of “The Star-Spangled Banner” through a performance of the national anthem remixed.

[MUSIC VIDEO PLAYS]

Wendell Patrick is cofounder of Baltimore Boom Bap Society.

WENDEL PATRICK, MUSICIAN, BALTIMORE BOOM BAP SOCIETY: Well, I think that any time that the country’s eyes or the world’s eyes are on Baltimore, it’s an opportunity for the city to showcase much of what it has to offer here, particularly in this case. I’m very happy and proud to be involved with a special concert commemorating the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. There has been a history of tremendous conflict in this country surrounding race issues, race relations. Francis Scott Key himself was a slave owner. And so it’s interesting for me musically to reinterpret this particular piece.

NOOR: One of the most famous renditions was performed by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969. He used “The Star-Spangled Banner” to challenge the American patriotic narrative at the height of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

[MUSIC VIDEO PLAYS]

Another lesser-known aspect of our national anthem is that it originally contained a verse that called for the targeting of enslaved African Americans, many of whom had fought on the side of the British after they were promised their freedom. Historian and activist Gerald Horne said this forgotten verse should be no surprise.

GERALD HORNE, HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR: Only the naive should be surprised that enslaved peoples, people enslaved by slaveowners who were in a war, would not necessarily support their slaveowners. This is particularly the case when the invading redcoats, the British, were on a faster track to abolition of slavery than those resident in the United States of America. And so we know that a few weeks before the attack on Fort McHenry in Maryland, that Africans and redcoats had assaulted the White House and had plundered and pillaged Washington, D.C., and had sent President James Madison and his garrulous spouse Dolly fleeing into the streets one step ahead of those who were pursuing them.

Unfortunately, today what historians and many others who may be deemed to be naive seek to do is fit the enslaved into a seamless narrative that at once eviscerates their rebelliousness and makes them seem like any other U.S. national. But they were not like any other U.S. national. They were property. There were considered like a horse or a piece of furniture and were treated abusively as a result, and therefore had little or no interest in seeing slavery maintained, nor their slaveholders, for that matter.

NOOR: Conway argues such omissions are instructive.

CONWAY: But the fact of the matter is, like, a tremendous amount of people in America benefited from the slavery because the infrastructure and everything else that supports America’s position in the world to be the number-one society was built on the back of slaves. And one of the stories that I often point out is that across the Atlantic Ocean there’s a highway of bones that’s 50 miles wide, 5000 miles long, that stretches from Africa to America, and it’s estimated, on the conservative numbers, that there’s 15 million black bodies have been dumped in the ocean in the effort to bring slaves from Africa to America. And those bodies, along with the bodies that actually arrived here, is what the whole entire nation has been built on. And that’s not recognized, and I think that’s important, and that has never been rectified. And today, even, we are still suffering the consequences of that by filling up all the jails while other segments of the population gets employment to hold us in captivity.

NOOR: From Baltimore, this is Jaisal Noor.

End

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