If a foe from within strike a llow at her glory,
While the land of the free is the home of the brave.The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. thought these lines would be a good addition to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a then widely popular patriotic hymn not yet sanctified as the nation’s anthem. He offered these extra verses in 1861, the year the Civil War began. Through my scouring of the Internet, I’ve come across a smattering of pieces that highly praise Holmes’ words and that suggest the latter quartet as a national anthem add-on which would render it more comprehensively reflective of the American ideal.
Holmes Sr., though, is clearly more concerned here with “Liberty’s smile” and “the flag of her stars” than he is with “the millions unchain’d.” It is of utmost importance to the poet that “the traitor who dares to defile / The flag” be stopped in whatever way possible. Good for them, though, “the millions unchain’d who our birthright have gained,” he seems to be saying.
That some writers argue for these revealingly indifferent verses as part of a better Star-Spangled Banner speaks to how glaringly far the actual, codified national anthem is from acceptably negotiating America’s racist, dehumanizing past. Sure, we only sing the innocent, inspiring verses of the Star-Spangled Banner as Francis Scott Key originally rendered them, but should we really be ignoring Scott Key’s intended meaning, and, more generally, the racist zeitgeist in which he wrote the song? “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,” he jokes in one of Star-Spangled Ban- ner’s lesser-known verses, referring to slaves who, having escaped from colonial slave owners like Scott Key himself, joined the Redcoat army.
It is within this damning context that observers should take measure of both the former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest last season and the NFL owners’ own revealing indifference in their politically sterilizing adaptation of Kaepernick’s protest in this season’s Week 3.
In fact, the NFL owner’s indifferent response is just another example of how we, as a nation, continue to justify the deeply concerning themes that underline our anthem.
The justifiable player response to Trump’s comments last week was not good news for NFL owners, who by virtue of their moneyed interests want any politics that polarize their fan-base to stay far from the field. Ultimately, a few owners opted for putting into motion a clever sleight of hand, locking arms with their players in a display of unity. The president had criticized the players for protesting structural racism and police brutality, and the league responded…that they wouldn’t let Trump divide the players and their bosses.
That NFL owners behaved opportunistically in obfuscating Kaepernick’s protest with a diversion message against divisiveness is not unexpected, but it is appallingly unsympathetic to the approximately 70 percent of NFL players who are Black.
Kneeling during the anthem hits a nerve that brings necessary and egregiously belated awareness to structural racism. Black Americans are owed by their country real justice and humanity to massive, incalculable extents, that the national anthem so pointedly ignores. Protesting the flag and the national anthem, the symbols epitomizing the high ideals our country lays claim to, perfectly embodies that reality.