Gwen Berry — a black track athlete who turned away from the American flag after coming in third place at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials on Saturday — claimed that she did so because the national anthem, which was playing, is “disrespectful” to black Americans.
“If you know your history, you know the full song of the national anthem. The third paragraph speaks to slaves in America — our blood being slain … all over the floor,” Berry claimed during an interview this week. “It’s disrespectful, and it does not speak for black Americans.”
However, Berry is wrong. The Star Spangled Banner does not say that and never has.
CNN ran an in-depth analysis on the Star Spangled Banner back in 2018 and gave an analysis of the key lines.
The third verse of the song, which is no longer part of the song, stated [emphasis is the portion Berry is making claims about]:
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 wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
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.
Alan Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who specializes in the American colonial revolution and early republic, told CNN that the line “isn’t meant as pro-slavery language.” “It’s referring to the British-poisoned ground – their polluting presence on American soil,” Taylor said.
Last year, The Washington Post published an op-ed / analysis of the Star Spangled Banner and the “ugly reason” that it was not adopted as America’s national anthem for a century. The line that Berry claims was talking about about black people’s blood being slain all over the floor is not mentioned once in the piece because it does not support the narrative that the article is seeking to promote: that some parts of the original Star Spangled Banner were bad.
The Washington Post piece mentions the last four lines of the third verse as being the part of the song that was problematic.
Regarding those four lines, Mark Clague — associate professor of musicology and American culture at the University of Michigan and a co-founder of the Star Spangled Music Foundation — told CNN:
Hirelings were the professional British troops. Key’s mocking them for doing it for the money, along with their stealing and ransoming. They were like pirates. And I think “slaves” is a reference to the Colonial Marines, who were slaves held captive by the Americans that escaped and were offered the opportunity to fight on the British side to earn freedom. ‘Let me put it another way, it makes no sense’
In the early 20th Century, during WWI, all but the first verse was cut because of their anti-British sentiment — as Britain was an ally of the U.S. President Herbert Hoover later made the song the national anthem in 1931.