A direct descendant of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the poem that later became America’s national anthem, can now be counted as one of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s many critics.
Shirley Carole Isham, Key’s great-great-great-granddaughter, told USA Today on Wednesday that Kaepernick’s protest “broke [her] heart,” going so far as to argue that black people were responsible for their plight:
It just broke my heart to that someone that gets so much money for playing a ballgame, who is half black, half white, would do this. So many of his black race are oppressed, but it’s not by the whites, it’s by their own people. Look who their leaders are, and the president. Has [Barack Obama] done anything for these people?
Nearly three weeks ago, Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color. After criticism that his initial statement was anti-military, he, and 49ers teammate Eric Reid started taking a knee. Numerous athletes from various sports have since followed their lead.
Kaepernick’s change in physical stance has yet to deter critics from insinuating that calling out racism during “The Star-Spangled Banner” betrays American patriotism.
But the attack is based on a false dichotomy. Critiquing police brutality and racism isn’t anti-American. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, argued for the Washington Post, what’s really “un-American” is the failure to address and reverse racism.
America was built on the backs of black people who were dehumanized and forced into slave status simply because of their skin color. Whole social institutions, from housing segregation to education, bear the mark of this legacy. And the nation’s anthem remains one of the most salient artifacts of that history.
Key wasn’t just a slaveholder himself; his family also owned a plantation in Maryland. As the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz reported shortly after Kaepernick’s first protest before a preseason game in August, the oft-forgotten third verse of Key’s 1814 masterpiece “literally celebrates the murder of African Americans”:
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 doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Schwartz and fellow Intercept reporter Jefferson Morley explain that “hireling and slave” was very likely a dig at the Colonial Marines, a group of former slaves who fought for the British during the War of 1812.
The phrase was also commonly used among slavery sympathizers of the time. So much so, Smithsonian Magazine noted, that abolitionists mocked Key and his poem “by sneering that America was truly the ‘Land of the Free and Home of the Oppressed.’”
Generations later, Isham has every right to take pride in her ancestor’s legacy. But her critique, like many lobbed at Kaepernick-inspired protesters, misses his point.
“If he’s not going to honor his country and his countrymen, he’s dishonoring himself,” Isham told USA Today. Kaepernick, though, has discussed his “great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” including members of his family. But he’s also witnessed where veterans “come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, on our land.”
By taking a knee, Kaepernick expresses a sense of duty to show respect while holding the country accountable for the racial discrimination many people face on a regular, and often systemic, basis. That includes police brutality, which remains a significant issue for black communities across the country.
As of this month, law enforcement officials have killed at least 2,195 people since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 by a police officer. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black. And despite the high frequency with which officer-involved killings take place, police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available.
These protests are not about the national anthem itself. These protests are about national hypocrisy that is embodied in the American institutions that have been shown to systemically undercut African Americans and other people of color.
Even though America touts itself as the “home of the brave,” backlash against Kaepernick shows America still resists acknowledging its original sin of slavery honestly, let alone the legacy of slavery that endures today. The poem Key penned, and the continued admiration extended to the anthem, is merely one of many testaments to this fact.