NEW YORK – Black American gymnast Gabby Douglas failed to place her hand on her heart while the U.S. national anthem was played for the gold medal her team won during the Rio Olympic Games. Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke wrote: “Oh, say can you see … the Olympic gold medalist slouching during the playing of the U.S. national anthem?”
Many Americans “freaked out.”
More than a month later, on Aug. 26, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is also black (actually, biracial), sat down when the U.S. national anthem was played in a preseason game, and provoked backlash. At the time of this writing, a USA Today headline reads: “Poll: Colin Kaepernick most disliked player in the NFL.”
Unpatriotic or not, the two cases are not the same. Douglas, who had a star turn in the 2012 London Olympic Games, was going through an emotional turmoil because she hadn’t done as well she had wanted to do in Rio. “I’ve been through a lot,” she explained, as she was reduced to tears by the onslaught via social media. In other words, she was distracted.
In contrast, after refusing to stand up for the anthem, Kaepernick explained why he’d done what he had: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
He was referring to the ready way black people are shot dead by policemen in this country. The Washington Post data base, “Fatal Force,” reports (Sept. 22), “Police are on pace to fatally shoot about as many people in 2016 as they did in 2015,” but of the 703 shot dead this year, the whites shot dead are 324, blacks at 173. Proportionate to the U.S. population by race, 4 times more blacks than whites are shot dead by law enforcement.
The reactions to the two athletes and the national anthem remind me of what I wrote 30 years ago, stirred by an article my English teacher Eleanor Wolff had clipped and gave me, “Star-Spangled Earache” (The New Republic, Dec 15, 1985). In it, the Brandeis professor of music Caldwell Titcomb argued that “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be replaced by “America the Beautiful” for four reasons.
For one, the song became the national anthem only in 1931, belying the general belief that it is as “old as the Republic” and thus “sacrosanct.” For another, the music was written by the Englishman John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society in London as a drinking song. “Is our nation so poverty-stricken that we must rule out homegrown music?” the professor asked.
For a third, the music “covers a span of a twelfth — that is, an octave plus a perfect fifth. Not only is it difficult for the general public to sing, but it has repeatedly caused trouble even for professional opera singers.”
Finally, the words Francis Scott Key wrote are “of low quality as poetry and its subject matter is too specific and too militaristic,” with the third stanza “too offensive.”
In my article prompted by this argument, “On Japan’s National Anthem” (Mainichi Daily News, Sept. 22, 1986), I skimped on Titcomb’s fourth point, focusing instead on the anthem’s singability in comparison with “the de facto Japanese national anthem” (at the time it wasn’t the official one yet). This, even though the professor had pointed out: “When a bank celebrated the last Independence Day by buying a full page in the New York Times to print the tune and text of the anthem, not surprisingly the dreadful third stanza was entirely omitted.”
Why? In retrospect, mainly because I wasn’t familiar with the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its historical background. Titcomb had quoted the reprehensible lines but they didn’t make much sense to me:
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave …
Interestingly, the book Miss Wolff gave me, “Sing for America” by Opal Wheeler, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren (E. P. Dutton, 1944), I see now, also had dropped the third stanza altogether. Is that because even in the midst of the war the severe discrimination against black people had provoked protests, such as the three-day race riot in June 1943 in Detroit, “the greatest arsenal of democracy”? Or was this omission because of the format of the book for children with musical scores limiting each song to three stanzas, no more, for space?
But the illustrations of black people in this book now remind me: I had read the Titcomb article and written my own article prompted by it just a few years before Japan’s wholesale movement to expurgate Sambo-like manga and other representations of black people in ads and dolls began — touched off by a Washington Post article in 1988.
Among the best-known such representations was a black man sucking the light beverage Calpis from a glass with a straw.
As I reported in my April 29, 2015, column in these pages, “Anti-abolitionist sentiments are alive and well,” it was not until I read Andrew Cockburn’s article on the War of 1812, “Washington Is Burning” (Harper’s, September 2014), that I learned what really lay behind Francis Scott Key’s “poem.”
The journalist’s ancestor, Adm. Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy, wreaking havoc up and down the Chesapeake Bay, burning down the White House in August 1814, made it his policy to rescue and free American slaves and accept those willing into the Colonial Marines — a total of 6,000.
England had started to suppress the slave trade in 1808 following the law passed by Parliament a year earlier.
Did Gabby Douglas and Colin Kaepernick know the stanza? I don’t know. The third stanza is rarely sung. For the usual ceremony, only the first stanza is sung that begins: “O! say can you see.”
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist based in New York.