By MARSHA MERCER
To celebrate the new Juneteenth federal holiday, Vanessa Williams sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the end of the “A Capitol Fourth” Independence Day concert in Washington.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is known as the Black national anthem, so, naturally, critics blasted the singer-actress as well as broadcaster PBS for going “woke.”
No matter that opera star Renée Fleming opened the show with “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“There’s only one National Anthem that covers everyone. It doesn’t matter what color you are,” one man wrote on Twitter, expressing a common theme.
Or does it? A national anthem should bring people together in the shared love of country. Does “The Star-Spangled Banner” still measure up?
The NAACP recognized “Lift Every Voice” as its official song in 1919, and over the last century it has become beloved as the Black national anthem.
Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” after watching the British attack Fort McHenry near Baltimore in 1814 and seeing the American flag still flying in victory in “dawn’s early light.” He put words to the tune of a then-popular English drinking song.
But Key was also a slaveholder and a lawyer who argued in court for the “right” to own slaves.
In our time of racial reckoning and reconsideration, statues to Key have been toppled as many people learn about Key and rarely sung verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The anthem’s third verse includes the line:
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or gloom of the grave.” The line is open to interpretation, and Key never explained what he meant. Some academics read it as overtly racist, while others see it as a reference to European mercenaries and enslaved Africans the British used as mercenaries in the War of 1812.
Americans alive today have grown up singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. But it wasn’t always so. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” ran a cartoon in 1929 with the caption, “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.”
That oversight was rectified in 1931, when President Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law designating “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Even then the choice was controversial – though not for race reasons. The New York Herald Tribune said the anthem had “words that nobody can remember to a tune that nobody can sing.”
It was also criticized as too militaristic and too anti-British.
For years, civil rights advocates have called for changing the national anthem.
Doing so would take an act of Congress and 60 votes in the Senate to override a filibuster or presidential veto, so that’s unlikely.
Rep. James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, introduced in January a measure to make “Lift Every Voice” the national hymn. Black writer and activist James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem in 1899 to celebrate the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black in Congress, says making the song a hymn would bring people together in “an act of healing.”
That may be a reach. Clyburn has only about 40 cosponsors in the House, and there is no companion bill in the Senate.
Progress takes time. In May, Maryland finally repealed its offensive state song. “Maryland, My Maryland” was written in 1861 during the heat of the Civil War and has references to Lincoln as a “tyrant” and “despot” and suggests Union soldiers are “Northern scum.”
The Virginia General Assembly couldn’t quite bring itself to repeal Virginia’s state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” with its racist connotations. The legislature did demote it to “state song emeritus” in 1997.
Virginia now has an official traditional state song, “Our Great Virginia,” a revision of “Oh Shenandoah,” and an official popular song, “Sweet Virginia Breeze,” which was popular in 1980.
Americans increasingly recognize our history is complicated and certain iconic people, place names and even songs are hurtful to a large swath of the population.
It’s time we consider what we want the national anthem to accomplish.
If it is to bring us together, as I think it should, we should consider retiring “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.
My choice would be “America the Beautiful.”
©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.