This Fourth of July, here’s an American story most of us were never taught.
After we had brutally enslaved black people for almost 200 years, some escaped and joined the British army to fight America in the War of 1812—they were called the Colonial Marines. Why join the British? To get freedom. Remember, blacks had been enslaved in America since 1619 and freedom was nowhere in sight.
In August of 1814, the Colonial Marines were part of the British troops that attacked Americans outside of DC and drove them back into the city, setting the White House on fire. One of the Americans who witnessed it was Francis Scott Key.
In September, Key also witnessed 25 hours of continuous British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore. After seeing the White House burn and the fort survive, Key became so moved that he wrote a poem that became the national anthem. In the third verse, Key had a special message for the enslaved people who had dared to fight for freedom—we will pursue you to get revenge:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
His message to the blacks fighting for freedom was unmistakable—we will hunt you down and the search will leave you in terror because, when we find you, your next stop is the gloom of the grave.
Some people try to claim he was writing about some other group of “slaves,” but there is no historical evidence that “slave” referred to anyone other than black enslaved people, whom Key viewed as “a distinct and inferior race of people, which experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts the community.” As a prosecutor in DC, Key sought the death penalty for a man who possessed abolitionist literature. Key believed that anyone who would consider abolishing slavery was willing to “associate and amalgamate with the Negro.” And to him that justified execution.
This is the story of Francis Scott Key and the writing of a poem that became the national anthem.
As you celebrate Independence Day, ask yourself if, as Americans, we have the courage to admit when something is really wrong with one of our traditions. The truth is not always pleasant, but it is always the truth.
On June 19, 2018, Culture Project, Off Center Productions, and Liberated People brought Jeffery Robinson’s renowned talk on the history of racism to the New York stage. These videos are part of Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, which challenges us to examine the truth about where we started as a country, where we are, and where we want to end up. To learn more visit thewhoweareproject.org.