What is Left Unsaid: The Verses We Do Not Sing.
There is an unheard third verse to the Star-Spangled Banner. It calls for the blood of “hireling and slave” to wash clean the pollution of British invaders on American soil — Francis Scott Key was furious at those former slaves who had chosen to fight for the British in the war of 1812, in exchange for their freedom. Key, a pro-slavery racist, believed that Black men who chose freedom over the nation that had enslaved them, were traitors. He believed that their blood deserved to be shed, because they valued their freedom and their lives over the survival of an America which promised nothing but chattel slavery for them and their families.
The solution to the problem — the solution that America has, in its colorblind wisdom, collectively arrived at — is that we no longer sing the third verse. The solution is that we omit the most egregious instance of racism, while leaving intact the rest of the song, the song written by a racist, a racist who wanted to see former slaves slaughtered for the crime of daring to fight for their own lives.
The edited anthem, the anthem sung with just two verses — is there anything redeemable about that song? Can we find anything usable in a symbol forged in the furnace of Black death? Does that third verse make itself known, even though it can’t be heard?
“It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system — slavery — while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites. The Southern slaveholding colonies would agree to form a union only on the condition that the federal government would not be able to interfere with the right to own slaves. … Federalism — the division of power between the states and the federal government — was the device employed to protect the institution of slavery and the political power of slaveholding states. Even the method for determining proportional representation in Congress and identifying the winner of a presidential election (the electoral college) was specifically developed with the interest of slaveholders in mind. Under the terms of our country’s founding document, slaves were defined as three fifths of a man, not a real, whole human being. Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy.”
— The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, p. 25–6
We’ve changed the Constitution quite a bit, since those early days. We’ve added a few more amendments that expand citizenship to those who in 1776 were either enslaved or disenfranchised. There’s more to amending the Constitution than unofficially dropping a verse — the 13th and 14th amendment explicitly repudiate what came before — but is that enough? Or are the underlying assumptions of the Constitution — the principle of Federalism, for example — inherently racist?
What I’m really asking, I suppose, is if something birthed in oppression can ever truly be turned around to serve as a weapon for the dispossessed. Can Americana ever really be reclaimed by those it once enslaved?
There is a theory that claims that there was nothing wrong with the ideals America was founded upon; that the work that justice seekers did was in order to expand the definition of who counts as a citizen, not change what American citizenship fundamentally means. It is the idea that the abolitionists, and the Suffragettes, and the Civil Rights crusaders were simply conspiring to build a more perfect union; that they were seeking to build on an existing framework, rather than tear down and start over.
It’s Obama-ism. It’s a myth that works well for the preservation of the nation as a whole, as it isn’t threatening enough to seriously put the existence of key American institutions at risk. It allows for the illusion of self-criticism; allows for the possibility that mistakes were made in the past, so as to appease justice-minded folk in the present.
And those revolutionaries who wanted to do a bit more than just preserve the existing power structure — who wanted to fundamentally change things — who wanted to put military imperialism and global capitalism and American manifest destiny out of business?
History doesn’t remember them so kindly.
So, is there any value left in symbols given to us by our Founding Fathers? Can we remix and reappropriate our history to squeeze some use out of them? Probably, if we aren’t afraid to be radical with our reinterpretation. Is it going to be as easy as dropping a problematic verse and pretending it never existed?
I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Onleilove Alston, the executive director of PICO-Faith New York, speak about a week ago. Justice, Onleilove said, requires a bright light. Justice is incompatible with secrets; justice requires us to ferret out the complete story, in all its terrible glory.
Justice requires us to think long and hard about institutions like the national anthem — justice asks us to have more rigor in our analysis of Colin Kaepernick’s deliberate disrespect than most of America seems to be employing. Justice demands that we know the history of the Star-Spangled Banner, instead of brushing off it’s backstory as irrelevant for today’s purposes.
Justice demands that we keep questioning, no matter what.
(For more, check out my tinyletter, Stuff Jaya’s Been Reading.)