The only time “The Star Spangled Banner” ever made me feel patriotic is when I hear Jimi Hendrix’s wicked powerful electric guitar rendition of the song, which he performed at Woodstock in 1969.
It was the theme of the America I was born into not so long after: an urban landscape scorched by riots, a nation weary over Vietnam, Middle East oil crises and Watergate. It was a place where many young people were questioning what it was to be American.
But man, those screeching psychedelic chords are enough to make even me dig the messy, confusing 240-year-old nation that I’ve called home all these years. (Yes granddaddy, we really did elect a Black president. No sir, I’m not kidding.)
So listening to Francis Scott Key’s poem set to music, I’ve never been that inspired. In it, he describes an 1814 British attack on Fort McHenry at Baltimore and how the U.S. flag was somehow sustained, which we are taught in schools to uphold as an example of American bravery. A subsequent, rarely heard stanza in the writing seemingly attempts to denigrate slaves that took the side of the British in order to secure their freedom.
It was among many patriotic themes that circled in the cultural panorama for years until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson began an effort to make the song the national anthem, which gained in popularity until 1930, when the Veterans of Foreign Wars began the final push for it, which became a bill that President Herbert Hoover signed into law the next year.
But all the while it was the violent song of an America that was soaked in the bloody, grotesque violence of lynching, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, Prohibition, and yes, you guessed it, police brutality (it ain’t new, bro, and it was a trending topic long before we had Facebook Live).
So San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick may be more right than even he knows in his decision not to stand for the national anthem when it is played at NFL games. Standing for it, in a way, means standing for all those things America came to represent for a lot of people who had been denied their chance at the American dream – then and now.
But in 1945, poet Langston Hughes told everyone “I, Too Sing America,” indicating that although he lived in a world of segregation and racism, he was proud to live on this soil. Because after all, bumps, bruises and all, it’s a beautiful land.
All this makes the argument that the national anthem should be changed to something that every American can get down with. Something that doesn’t pretend to be a song that represents the very people it lambasts. Something that is inclusive for every one of us, even if – like a typically dysfunctional American family – we don’t always agree or get along.
A long time ago at a family gathering, I heard my aunt play Ray Charles’ 1972 rendition of “America the Beautiful” on – get this, a record player! Now, Charles didn’t write it, nor was he the first to perform it, but I’ll argue he was the best to ever do it.
Maybe it’s the piano with backing organ that he carries the tune on with the Raelettes providing background vocals. Or maybe it’s just hearing a Black man saying it’s okay to love this country, too, despite the historical risks taken by just being a Black man in America. Either way, when I hear that song, I feel that I’m a part of this thing we call America, that I have a stake in making it a better place for generations yet unborn.
Now, Marvin Gaye’s version of the national anthem, which he sang with the soul of “What’s Going On?” at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game and Whitney Houston’s rendition at Super Bowl XXV in 1991, which for many became the version of the song, make a strong case for keeping things as they are, but because it was those two who sang it, for me it’s like hearing James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
That as you know, is the Black National Anthem, and it’s something I believe is a Black cultural treasure that we should hold on to like we do Juneteenth and “Soul Train.”
So I’ll join others who have been making this argument for years: if we’re going to have a national anthem, make it Katherine Lee Bates’ 1893 song, which describes our “beautiful, spacious skies,” our “amber waves of grain,” and “our purple mountain majesties, across the fruited plain” – I’m still imagining Ray Charles singing this on a hissing and popping piece of vinyl.
As an American, I’ve never witnessed any “rockets’ red glare” or any “bombs bursting in air.” But having returned to the U.S. many times from lands that are nowhere near as abundant as ours, and where people wish they only had our problems, I’ve often prayed: “God shed his grace on thee,” and asked him to “crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.”
So would Kaepernick stand for “America, the Beautiful?”
Who knows? But his protest against standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner” makes the point that if we’re going to have something that represents us, it should represent the America that we envision and that unifies us, not the America that has divided us.
As Stevie Wonder once wrote: “As your hand touches your heart, remember we all played a part in America to help that banner wave…”