Taking issue with a recent press release from Project 21 and a larger historical debate, Simmons College of Kentucky President Rev. Dr. Kevin W. Cosby insisted that the “Star-Spangled Banner” lyrics should apparently be defined literally and by modern standards.
Are you sure you want to be so literal, President Cosby?
There is no consensus as to what exactly Francis Scott Key meant in the little-known (until now) third verse of our National Anthem when he wrote: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave.”
But the literal interpretation – that Key was referring to chattel slavery – is being used by those who want to upend American history and tradition to argue that it should no longer be our national song.
In response to a tweet about Project 21 Co-Chairman Horace Cooper being scheduled to discuss the issue on Bill Martinez’s nationally syndicated talk show, Cosby tweeted that people can “safely assume” Key’s words meant chattel slavery because Key was a slave owner and white supremacist.
In the release, Cooper said: “Claiming that the lines from a song written in 1814 were intended to malign blacks reveals more about either their ignorance of history or their willingness to outright fabricate claims against our country.”
Key did own slaves, but it’s hard to justify he was a white supremacist outside of using the same specious logic ESPN’s Jemele Hill seemed to use when she called President Trump one.
In 2005, Robert Devaney, the executive director of the Francis Scott Key Foundation, wrote in the Washington Post that “to view Key, author of our national anthem, as a white supremacist misses the point of historical context.” More recently, J. Mark Powell, a history blogger, pointed out Key’s complexities in a piece he wrote for the Washington Examiner:
Then there was Key’s highly-complicated relationship with slavery. He was a slave owner who also opposed the practice. He personally owned six slaves. While he eventually set them all free, no effort was made to do likewise for the large number of slaves his wife inherited and who worked the farm that provided a big part of the family’s income. On several occasions, Key represented slaves trying to win their freedom in court, for free. He was also actively involved in the American Colonialization Society, which helped found the colony of Liberia in Africa.
Yet Key was also bitterly opposed to the abolitionist movement and used his position as U.S. Attorney to challenge it. Right up until this death in 1843 at age 63, he strongly supported the colonization of former slaves in Africa and resisted the abolition of slavery. Try explaining that contradiction!
Of course, the easy way – the one apparently being used by Cosby, is that Key is a plain and simple, unrepentant racist.
Then there’s the matter of the actual terms “hireling” and “slave” that appear in the song. While Key never explained how that particular line came about, there are those who argue that the line refers to Hessian soldiers – Germans – who had been employed by the British:
Our revolutionaries referred to them contemptuously as slaves, because they had no choice in the matter of service, and hirelings because their services could be sold to the highest bidder. Hessian soldiers had largely been press-ganged into service, and deserters were routinely and summarily executed…
A generation later, when the British once again tried to reintegrate their former colonies into their empire, it was a common belief among American patriots of 1812 that this latest levy of British soldiers were also bought and paid for, involuntarily serving mercenaries – hence, as the song said, men who were hireling and slave.
And it has been reported that noted no-nonsense abolitionist Frederick Douglass was quite fond of the song, despite that allegedly line about chattel slavery in the third verse.
What can we glean from all of this? You shouldn’t take things literally or out of context. Especially when you are talking about something written over a century ago.
After all, it wasn’t but a generation ago that you could say to someone at your office that “you’re acting quite gay today” and be thanked rather than hauled down to human resources. What was then a compliment about your attitude is now likely to be considered a bullying slur or insult and possibly grounds for termination or the dissolution of a friendship. Putting things in context is also why people who hold traditional values can sing about donning gay apparel while decking the halls without believing they are endorsing the LGBT agenda.
What about those insensitive folk at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People? What kind of person uses the term “colored people” these days? Outside of the civil rights lobbyists at the NAACP, “Good Morning America” host Amy Robach found out the consequences last year when she used it in a news report and had to profusely apologize for using a “slur.” As was pointed out by an expert, “people of color” is much preferred over “colored people” these days.
And then there is the issue of ambiguity, and why Cosby shouldn’t want to be so literal.
When you go to the Simmons College of Kentucky website, it proudly states that the school is “the nation’s 107th Historically Black College.” That’s… it.
You go to the “fast facts” about the school, and it further explains Simmons was “Designated as the 107th Historically Black College (HBCU) by the U.S. Department of Education on April 13, 2015 (unprecedented accomplishment).” OK…
For what? They’re on a list. But there’s no context. Are they 107th among HBCUs? That doesn’t sound good. In fact, it sounds pretty bad. I’d rather go to the HBCU designated in the top ten. KnowhatImean?
Project 21 was chided in a tweet by the president of the 107th-ranked black college in America. Literally!
Don’t like that, President Cosby? Well, there are probably a lot of proponents of Francis Scott Key who bristle over him being called a white supremacist, and more who don’t consider our National Anthem a pro-slavery song. Literally.