The National Anthem and America’s long night

in Community/Opinion/Sports

San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler recently joined others in professional sports who have protested during the pregame playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In late May, the Associated Press quoted Kapler as saying, “I don’t plan on coming out for the anthem going forward until I feel better about the direction of our country.”

Kapler paused his dissent on Memorial Day, explaining his personal obligation to honor and mourn the veterans who have defended our country. The following day, he remained in the dugout.

Kapler’s discussion of his original decision in a long blog post made me reassess my thoughts about boycotting the anthem. I was disturbed when former San Francisco Forty Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick started sitting through it during the 2016 NFL preseason. I believed then that he was exploiting his media stage to disavow the country that, for all its deep flaws, especially involving the police and people of color — one of Kaepernick’s criticisms — also enabled a young man of mixed race to be adopted, receive a public-university education and earn a fortune playing professional football.

Then, on May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. As a country, we have not been the same since. Now, multiple mass killings within just weeks — at least one of them apparently motivated by inexecrable racial hatred — again have left us filled with feelings of impotence and rage. When will it end? When — and how — will we make it end?

This story first appeared in the July edition of Climate Magazine.

Ever since Kaepernick sat, the anthem has become a flashpoint. To many, the sight of players kneeling is abhorrent. But it’s also understandable. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of our most important national symbols. When we are asked to sing it, we are undeniably being asked to celebrate our nation.

Like all Americans at this moment, the Giants’ Kapler doesn’t feel much like celebrating. “I am not okay with the state of this country,” he wrote in an impassioned post entitled, “Home of the Brave?” In particular, his thoughtful and wide-ranging essay took Congress to task for failing to ban assault weapons. As for the connection to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he said, “I’m often struck before our games by the lack of delivery of the promise of what our national anthem represents.”

No argument here. And yet: Consider how the anthem came to be. Many know that an attorney named Francis Scott Key wrote the lyric while on an American vessel that was being detained by the British after Key had helped negotiate the release of an American prisoner during the War of 1812. What most people don’t know is that Key matched his words to the British tune, “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which was so popular that its melody already had been used for more than 130 songs in the United States.

We are told that on September 13, 1814, Key had been watching the British navy’s 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. Less than a month before, King George’s troops had torched the President’s mansion (not yet called the White House), the Capitol, the Treasury Department and the buildings that housed the departments of war and state. Whatever the wisdom of declaring war on Britain, the Americans had their hands full.

The next morning, writes musicologist and historian Mark Clague of the University of Michigan, “Key rose … and through the lens of his spyglass saw his nation’s 15-star, 15-stripe flag waving defiantly over the fort. He was elated and relieved, certain that God had intervened.” Over the following two days, Key wrote, “Defence of Fort McHenry,” later to be called, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The lyric — and it really is a lyric, not a poem — consists of four long stanzas. It’s the first one, generally, that people sing (or not). That stanza and the next two mainly ask questions. The opening phrase, “O, say, can you see,” in fact begins a four-line inquiry in which the apprehensive American lawyer wonders if the stars and stripes are still “gallantly streaming.”

To me — both historically and personally — it’s significant that Key’s poem poses more questions than answers. In essence, it asks, “Are we still here? Are we all right?”

On that early morning in 1814, the answers had to be, “Yes, barely” and “No, not yet.” For that reason, I have long viewed “The Star-Spangled Banner” not as a song of mindless, patriotic jubilation, but an expression of grim-faced determination at a time of crisis. To its other existential questions, add this one: Can we pull through? The final verse — almost no one knows it — ends hopefully, predicting that the flag “in triumph shall wave.” But as the British pulled out from their failed attack, it was still far from certain — and despite his momentary euphoria, Key must have known it.

A century-and-a-half later, the country faced the latest in its long history of crises. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was not the first catastrophe of the 1960s, nor would it be the last. A week and a day after Kennedy’s death, football fans from Stanford and the University of California gathered for the annual “Big Game” between the two traditional rivals. The contest had been postponed from the previous Saturday, and the mood was somber. Sensing what was needed, Stanford’s new band director, Arthur P. Barnes, reached into his files for an unconventional arrangement of the national anthem he had written while teaching at Fresno State University. It had been performed just a couple of times in Stanford Stadium. But if ever a time cried out for a reprise, it was now.

Jon Erickson, formerly Stanford’s bursar and now director of Stanford Stadium and other campus athletic facilities, played in the band that day. As he recalls, the pregame memorial ceremony included a full 60 seconds of silence.  Then, as if from nowhere, a solo trumpet player mournfully sounded the anthem’s first two lines. (My father, who went to the game, was reminded of “Taps.”) The woodwinds crept in, joined gradually by the brass and percussion as the piece, infused with a haunting, Mahler-esque harmony, built slowly to a stirring close.

The near-sellout crowd appeared stunned. “I’ve never heard such a loud silence,” Barnes said shortly before he retired in 1997. “All the sportswriters said they had lumps in their throats.”

On that day, I had just turned nine years old. When the sixties ended, I was 15. The decade, dominated by the Vietnam war abroad and assassinations and riots at home, is often considered the country’s most divisive except for the time of the Civil War.

Now, I wonder. When I view the sixties, it’s often with the young person’s eye I had then. Hate and fury were offset by idealism and hope. Yes, there was Watts and Detroit and Kent State. But, for a time, there was also Dr. King. There were the Beatles, Aretha Franklin and “Hair.” As the decade ended, Neil Armstrong kept President Kennedy’s promise and took one giant leap on the surface of the moon. Even as Vietnam blazed under American napalm, Armstrong laid a plaque that read, “We came in peace for all mankind.”

Today, I see none of the optimism that countered the sixties’ many tragedies. Beyond the horrors we have recently witnessed, the country is paralyzed by virulent and universal cynicism and distrust. Again, we have strong reason to ask, “Can we pull through?”

At times like this, the national anthem reminds us of what we have already endured. No matter how people may feel about singing it just now, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” at its heart, portrays the fragility of our democratic enterprise. Often, we have been at war with ourselves. Yet, despite our many perils and losses, we remain standing, even if it may feel more like staggering.

Are we still here? Yes, barely. Are we all right? No, not yet.

Photo via Scopio