On Monday, Jan. 16, I attended the keynote Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium event at Hill Auditorium. And while I was there to see Amy Goodman and Issa Rae, I was really struck by a version of the U.S. national anthem that was performed by two graduate students.
The song, originally written in 1844, is titled “Oh Say, Do You Hear?” Performed to the tune of the national anthem to which most of us stand up without hesitation at sporting events, this version contains lyrics that refer explicitly to the United States’s history of bondage and slavery, and even points to the irony and the violence of American exceptionalism. This is an exceptionalism that demands that we, as Americans, regard ourselves as citizens of the land of the free, even while millions of our fellow citizens remain enslaved.
Here is the first verse of this revised version of our national anthem:
Oh, say do you hear, at the dawn’s early light,
The shrieks of those bondmen, whose blood is now streaming
From the merciless lash, while our banner in sight
With its stars, mocking freedom, is fitfully gleaming?
Do you see the backs bare? Do you mark every score
Of the whip of the driver trace channels of gore?
And say, doth our star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
When juxtaposed with our national anthem, what is the impact of these lyrics? How does our response differ from the song that we know so well? Imagine, if you will, that after we watched Harbaugh and the Big Blue Gang run out onto the field, we all stood up and sang along to this song. Would we even sing along? Or would we be too embarrassed, too humiliated, by this song that functions both as our national anthem and as a song, which demands that we confront our past and ask ourselves how far we have truly come. Would we even stand? Or might this song actually prompt us to action? Maybe on good days, days when our culture has done well, days when our culture has worked to eradicate the growing wealth disparities, to decrease the more than 2 million people living in cages in this country. … Maybe on these days, we could hear the celebratory song. But not every day. Every day cannot be a celebration.
I once saw a Reddit post about smoking weed that made this analogy: Weed is like your vacation house, and at first you go there once a week, once a month and then you start going there every day, a couple times a day, maybe. And once you do this, you have begun to try to make your vacation house your everyday house. Very quickly, then, the vacation house loses its appeal.
(In other words, the celebration, the vacation, stops being a positive thing entirely. It becomes a moment of denial, a moment in which one refuses to confront the world in front of them, instead opting to live in a fabricated, imagined world in which we can vacation all night long and sing “Hail to the Victors” — a song that does nothing but “celebrate” in a, I would argue, similarly destructive way).
Immediately, the lyrics of this version call to our attention the violently compliant nature with which we, as a culture, examine ourselves as Americans. These lyrics make two things clear: first, that while we deem our national anthem to be a quintessentially American song, the opening lines of this version allude to the inherently exclusionary nature of the song, indeed, of the idea that one is an American. Who, then, is fit to wear the priceless badge of an American? Whose history, whose country, does our national anthem celebrate? For it is a song that ignores the history of the country that it claims to celebrate. But what is a country — indeed, who are any of us, what is anything at all — without its history?
Instead of the country itself, our national anthem celebrates an idealized, racialized vision of America that only can function on the bloody backs of millions of enslaved people.
I must say, though, that I was really impressed that this performance took place here, at the University of Michigan. Sitting in Hill Auditorium, looking at the same stage upon which King himself once stood to give two lectures in 1962, I felt the University beginning to confront its own filthy history and that of the United States at large. It was the most radical administratively approved moment I have witnessed in Ann Arbor.
President Mark Schlissel was there, as was Robert Sellers, the Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion at the University, and numerous other big-time faculty members and administrators. The biggest head honcho missing from the event was Coach Harbaugh. Imagine that, if he came out, and if, perhaps, our fight song played. No, that could not happen. That would be too contradictory. That would put us into a position of two kinds of consciousness, one right after the other. The first “Go Blue!” consciousness that is, to quote Frank Ocean’s truth-telling mother, “Sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned.” A consciousness which celebrates blindly, which contentedly cheers without actually considering at all the full scope of what is being cheered.
And then the second consciousness, which probes itself and those conscious beings around it, which seeks to contextualize itself and its country within a much broader, more inclusive framework.
At least for a moment, this seemed to be the consciousness of the University. May we hope that this moment demonstrates the direction in which our administrators will lead us in the days, months and years to come.
Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at email@example.com.