On Monday, Barack Obama responded to false rumors about his own patriotism with a speech defining love of country as a unifying ideal of Americans from George Washington to Martin Luther King, Jr. Tangled up in red, white and blue, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee had this to say.
None of us expect that arguments about patriotism will, or should, vanish entirely; after all, when we argue about patriotism, we are arguing about who we are as a country, and more importantly, who we should be. But surely we can agree that no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism. And surely we can arrive at a definition of patriotism that, however rough and imperfect, captures the best of America’s common spirit.
Less than 24 hours later, at the commencement of a Denver City Council meeting, jazz singer Rene Marie sang the melody of Francis Scott Key’s "Star Spangled Banner" but used the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice in Praise,” written by poet James Weldon Johnson in 1900. The song is often described as the “black national anthem.”
By Wednesday, Colorado media outlets were stoking a racialized media controversy with propagandistic overtones. Retiring congressman Tom Tancredo said that Marie had insulted America.
The rage of the offended not only highlights the challenge that Obama’s candidacy-cum-movement poses for the country but the new biracial patriotism that seeks to defuse it.
Denver was “shocked” by Marie’s version of the national anthem, according to the easily shocked editors at Fox News. The Rocky Mountain News called it a “self-indulgent deception. ” Gov. Bill Ritter, sensing a right-wing talking point, told a talk radio show he thought Marie’s action was “inappropriate” and “a distraction,” according to NBC affiliate 9 News.
"There is no substitute for the national anthem, period," said City Councilman Charlie Brown. "And that’s what really bothered me. You know when we fly the flag, the American flag, it’s always the highest flag, as it should be. And that didn’t come across today, that didn’t happen today."
Marie held her ground."When I decided to sing my version, what was going on in my head was: ‘I want to express how I feel about living in the United States, as a black woman, as a black person.”
The blogospheric chorus waxed indignant. An unscientific survey on a local TV news Web site found that 4,300 of 6,300 respondents found Marie’s actions “highly offensive.” Her song choice, said Rightpundits “plays into a stereotype about Obama backers that they are divisive and provokes unfair whispers that Obama himself may be secretly unpatriotic” — a clever formulation that enables the anonymous authors to perpetrate the stereotype and amplify the whispers.
In fact, Rene Marie’s version of the national anthem resembles nothing so much as Jimi Hendrix’s blues rock rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Woodstock rock festival in 1969. That too was denounced by aspiring cultural commissars as offensive. In fact, it expressed an anguished love of country that knew no racial or religious bounds.
To be sure, there was something impolite about Rene Marie’s mischievous music-making. She was invited to sing the national anthem at a solemn civic occasion and she did not exactly do that. But there was nothing rude about her performance.
The words she substituted for the anthem’s lyrics hardly lacked seriousness or patriotism.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
By all accounts, after her performance Marie received a warm round of applause from the slightly puzzled crowd. And there was nothing unpatriotic about it. By singing the melody of "The Star Spangled Banner" but not the familiar “Oh say, can you see…” Marie’s effort was likely more an attempt at racial healing. In effect, she forgave the man who penned the national anthem, Francis Scott Key, for his racism.
Few white Americans know that African-Americans have had decades of good reason to regard Key’s "Star Spangled Banner" as the white man’s national anthem and not their own.
One reason why the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP) and other black organizations wanted their own national anthem in the early 1900s and adopted “Lift Ev’ry Voice” was the well-documented historical knowledge that Key had been a slave owner who was actively hostile to the movement to abolish slavery. Many black people knew that slave owners were among the ranks of those who sang most lustily about the land of the free and the home of brave. African-American patriotism required a different tune.
This history has been hidden from most Americans. While most every American schoolchild learns that Key, a young lawyer, wrote the words to his anthem in September 1814 after watching U.S. forces repulse a British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore, few know the second act of Key’s life. He went on to a successful career as a politically connected Washington attorney. He was a prosperous civic-minded man whose public service culminated in a stint as district attorney for the City of Washington, D.C.
On racial issues, Key was something of a liberal for his time. He thought slavery cruel and advocated sending all free African-Americans to colonies in Africa. He embodied the common racial prejudice of his day. He firmly rejected the idea that black people deserved freedom or equality, and he acted on that belief. He defended slaves in his law practice. More often, he defended the interests of slave owners.
Key was zealous in his opposition to anti-slavery activists. In the aftermath of a race riot that shocked sleepy Washington in 1835, Key indicted a local doctor named Ruben Crandall for distributing anti-slavery publications in the capital. Key insisted that calls for the abolition of slavery were nothing less than sedition, an intentional assault on the city’s law and order.
The abolitionists of the anti-slavery movement were the forerunners of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Angry and politically isolated, they damned America for its tolerance of slavery. Naturally, they were repudiated by all politically respectable people (including a certain young lawyer from Illinois with ears as big as his ambitions.)
Key loathed the abolitionists for their impudence and they mocked him right back. They denounced the hypocrisy of buying and selling human beings in the capital of a country whose anthem proclaimed ideals of freedom and equality. One illustration in the publication that Key sought to ban in 1835 depicted a slave auction in view of the U.S. Capitol. It was entitled, “Land of the Free, Home of the Oppressed.”
The trial of Ruben Crandall in the spring of 1836 was, in contemporary terms, a media spectacle. Key’s prosecutorial eloquence attracted standing room only crowds and made headlines across the country. (I tell the forgotten story in an article for The Washington Post Sunday magazine in 2005).
In his final statement to the jurors, Key made an impassioned appeal to their sense of racial superiority.
"Are you willing, gentlemen, to abandon your country; to permit it to be taken from you, and occupied by the Abolitionist, according to whose taste it is to associate and amalgamate with the Negro?" Key declared. "Or, gentlemen, on the other hand, are there laws in this community to defend you from the immediate Abolitionist, who would open upon you the floodgates of such extensive wickedness and mischief?"
Mercifully for the capital and the country. Key lost the case when the jury swiftly acquitted the defendant. Key’s defeat was a small victory in the history of free speech in America. The idea that the author of the national anthem was a stalwart defender of the slave system never fit too well into his patriotic legend and the whole business was soon forgotten, at least by white Americans.
Not by black folks. For the descendants of slaves, "The Star Spangled Banner" endured as the melody of the white man’s indifference or hostility. Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock reclaimed the anthem with guitar-hero fireworks that echoed the screaming of fighter jets manned by the likes of John McCain. Hendrix, of racially mixed heritage, saved patriotism from pomposity with a daring rethinking of what we mean when we think of the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Rene Marie’s rendition was less thrilling but no less patriotic. By singing the melody of "The Star Spangled Banner" but not the familiar “Oh say, can you see,” this low-profile jazz singer with four albums to her name tapped into the deepest roots of American patriotism. She replaced the white poet’s words with a black poet’s words, yet loyally kept the song’s traditional melody. She married the black experience to the national anthem without abandoning the original. It wasn’t appropriate for the occasion but it was a forgiving and loving tribute to her country.
Those who see controversy in Marie’s song choice not only miss the point, they miss the patriotism.
“As we begin our fourth century as a nation,” Sen. Obama had said the day before in his patriotism address, “it is easy to take the extraordinary nature of America for granted. But it is our responsibility as Americans and as parents to instill that history in our children, both at home and at school. The loss of quality civic education from so many of our classrooms has left too many young Americans without the most basic knowledge of who our forefathers are, or what they did, or the significance of the founding documents that bear their names. Too many children are ignorant of the sheer effort, the risks and sacrifices made by previous generations, to ensure that this country survived war and depression; through the great struggles for civil, and social, and worker’s rights.”
Too many children — and too many adults — are ignorant of the complex strands of race and history that are woven into our history but this presidential campaign may be starting to change all that.