“The Star-Spangled Banner” doesn’t seem that racist, as long as you skip the later verses and ignore the white supremacist who wrote it. Taking those aspects into account, however, some activists are calling for America to find a new national anthem, and one popular proposal has put forth John Lennon’s “Imagine”.
“But wait,” you may be saying. “I’ve sung ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ for years, and I’m not racist. Besides, those patriotic high notes really make my rocket glare.” And it’s true, the one verse that we trot out at sporting events is merely unsettlingly violent, rather than outwardly prejudiced. If that’s the only part of Francis Scott Key’s 1814 poem that you’re familiar with, then the history behind the third verse will be a bit of a shocker.
In the offending passage, Francis Scott Key makes reference to a “band” of “hireling and slave” whose “blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.” As historian Jason Johnson has argued, these words are a timely dig at Black people fighting for the British. The War of 1812 was waged, in part, over England’s attempts to stop the young United States from expanding the slave trade in North America. As the war took place far from English soil, the British got into the habit of freeing Black slaves and then hiring them to fight against America. In his words, Key was sneering at Black people with the audacity to take money from their liberators to kill their former masters.
Besides being a B-list poet, Key was also a slaveowner and racist prosecutor. His overzealous prosecution of a young Black man in 1835 incited the infamous Snow Riot. Once you learn that Key also called Blacks, “a distinct and inferior race of people, which experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts the community,” then you might do as the people of San Francisco did, and topple Key’s statues to the ground. As journalist Kevin Powell reminds us, Key was “someone who really did not believe in freedom for all people. And yet, we celebrate him with this national anthem, every time we sing it.”
But if we do away with “The Star-Spangled Banner”, what will we sing when we win the Olympics? How will the US military use the NFL to sell propaganda? Via Yahoo News, some activists — including journalist Powell — are pushing to replace it with John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Powell called it, “the most beautiful, unifying, all-people, all-backgrounds-together kind of song you could have.”
“Imagine” is the biggest hit from the ex-Beatle’s solo career, and it’s not hard to see why. The song is as inspiring as it is hokey, as grandiose and life-affirming as it is vapid and facile. “Imagine” isn’t about us, but a fictionalized best version of ourselves. In that context, it’s hard to picture a more fitting national anthem out there. As Powell sums it up, “If you really love your country, if you really are patriotic, then you criticize and challenge your country to be better and do better.”
That said, swapping out Key for Lennon presents some issues of its own. For one, it seems improbably the whole of America would gather under the words of a British artist who helped pioneer the use of LSD. Worse yet, Lennon was a self-avowed spousal abuser and serial philanderer. He also hit and largely abandoned his first child, Julian, with a wife whom he also abused and cheated on. In an interview, Lennon once explained the “Getting Better” lyric, “I used to be cruel to my woman and beat her,” by saying, “That’s me, because I used to be cruel to my woman and physically… Any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men, I hit women, I was violent. That’s why I’m always on about peace, you see. It’s the most violent people who go for love and peace.”
Ever since the murder of George Floyd, activists have pushed our corporate overlords to take baby steps in the right direction. Recently Quaker Oats finally did away with their mammy mascot Aunt Jemima. Also, since apparently every edgy sitcom from the last twenty years did a blackface bit, the comedies Golden Girls,30 Rock, The Office, Scrubs, and Community have all pulled offending episodes from streaming services. There have also been calls to rename John Wayne airport and replace Confederate-era statues with Dolly Parton and Prince. Meanwhile, established music groups artists including Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum have changed their names to The Chicks and Lady A, respectively.