I have a story to tell you . . . one pulled out of an old trunk. . . from corners of our collective memory. . . from hidden stories of Americana . . . from the dirt swept under the rug . . . from the backroads of history.
This will not come as a surprise to you that July 4 is not a cause for celebration for African Americans, Native Americans or for Native Hawaiians. Or that the Star Spangled Banner, born in Baltimore Harbor is the sound track of The Creation Myth.
“We know that the Founding Fathers were slave owners and that the freedom they sought did not extend to their slaves.” Dr. Gerald Horne wrote that “1776 was in fact a counter-revolution, a conservative movement fought in order to preserve the colonists’ enslavement of Africans.” Dr. Horne continued, “In a nutshell, London was on the verge of abolishing slavery, which would have carried over to the British colonies. In reaction, the colonists set up the first apartheid state.”
Therefore, the purpose of this story is a vehicle for understanding how and why we need to think about revitalizing and rewriting our “4th of July holiday” tradition.
In spite of the fact that the song was written during the War of 1812, this weekend we will hear our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” over and over again; completely intertwined with the so called “War of Independence.” That is completely understandable. Since the beginning of the United States in 1775 there has never been a prolonged period when the “troops’ were not called upon in the “defense of the Nation.” She has been at war during 211 out of her 238 calendar years of existence. In other words, there were only 19 calendar years in which the U.S. did not wage any wars; most of the time as the aggressor.
Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, wrote the lyrics of the national anthem in 1814 after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by British ships in Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.
Most of us cannot sing the song and those who can, only sing one verse.
Did you ever wonder why, if the song has four verses, only the first is commonly sung?
Well I’ll tell you.
Baltimore is so rich in history. From America’s infancy, democracy’s first dream to today’s realities . . . Baltimore has always figured in the struggle.
Every morning in our “separate but equal”(?) school, we stood to pledge allegiance to the flag – “with liberty and justice for all”, justice? And oh, the field trips – Historic Baltimore is an abundant resource for teachers – the many many field trips to Fort McHenry – we ran across the ramparts, climbed on the cannons, peeped into the dungeons, imagined the bombs bursting in air – and the flag is still waving.
How many times had we as children, fought that war – Baltimore being the only school district in America where the children knew about the War of 1812 let alone the Battle of Baltimore. Each time we held our heads up high and sang, —
“O say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light, What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?”
Not ever giving one thought to the mockery of the words –
“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
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
At that same time America was at war using slave troops – some of which were massacred in uniform; “Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand”, wrote Francis Scott Key, a slave owner. “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
The formation of Dunmore’s Regiment marked a significant turn in both British policy and American. Dunmore’s members were the first of an estimated 12,000 Blacks who served with British forces in North America during the Revolutionary War.
Almost all textbooks present superficial accounts of the Revolution and the part the Slaves and Native Americans played; the hatred was intense! And whose side did they fight on? Can we really believe that the Slaves and Native Americans who had lost all that they hold dear, would fight on the side of the “Americans” to retain the status quo?
In 1775, all “Americans” were actually British citizens, who had taken oaths before God to be loyal to the King. Therefore this revolt was treason.
Perhaps, just perhaps it is because most of the defining historians who write text books are white males from the northeastern states and that is not the story they want to tell.
We, all of us, have a tendency to exalt a few dramatic heroes and to conceal the sharp but subtle divisions that shaped the conflicting convictions of Americans, the failure of George Washington ever to win a definitive battle, and the fact that it was the French military forces at sea and on land that made it possible for Americans to prevail over the British. Also, it is uncomfortable to acknowledge that there were villains and heroes on both sides.
Even as an adult I climbed on the cannon to watch the new flag with its 50th star being raised at Fort McHenry. As the United States celebrated the taking of an indigenous peoples’ land (Hawaii) – again not seeing the travesty in the words – “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just” Is it ever just to overthrow the Hawaiian Kingdom and take another peoples land? Oh yes, they took parts of Mexico, which we now call New Mexico, Arizona, parts of Texas and California.
.”And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!