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Are national anthems like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ racist, and do their lyrics need a 2020 overhaul?

Chris Sweeney
Chris Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney

Are national anthems like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ racist, and do their lyrics need a 2020 overhaul?
National anthems are sung with gusto at all types of important events, but have we been paying enough attention to exactly what we’re singing? Some of them have words we might deem questionable, even distasteful.

With the fury of the BLM protests still burning brightly, every facet of society is being investigated for links to racism. Statues have been ripped down. Episodes of popular TV shows have been deleted. Best-selling food brands have been renamed. But aren’t we missing the elephant in the room?

There’s one thing that brings us all together, that every country stands on ceremony for, and that’s to show respect for their hallowed national anthem. As our flags flutter, men and women rise up to pay homage to their country.

It’s not uncommon to see individuals emphasizing their admiration for their homeland by placing a hand on their heart as the music rings out. Even the famous protest of taking a knee, started by NFL player Colin Kaepernick, during the singing of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ was purposely carried out in a respectful manner, and there was never any mention of Kaepernick being against the anthem itself. But maybe he ought to have been.

Because America’s anthem features some hideous lyrics. It was written by slave owner Francis Key and includes the words: “Their blood has wash’d out their foul footsteps’ 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”. Essentially, he's expressing delight in the death of black slaves who had freed themselves and took part in battles.

The next line of “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” from Key’s vantage point, would have meant that America was the land of the free provided you weren’t black. That’s why abolitionists ridiculed him and said it should instead have read “the land of the free and home of the oppressed.” Key even referred to Africans in America as “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” 

‘La Marseillaise’ is often hailed as one of the best-sounding anthems, due to its upbeat ambience and music. Nevertheless, France should be ashamed of the words that accompany it. They include: “To arms, citizens / Form your battalions / Let’s march, let’s march / Let an impure blood / Water our furrows.” Taken in the context of today, it reads more like one of Osama bin Laden’s infamous calls to arms than a song to represent one of the world’s most powerful nations.

Desperate defenders have tried to proffer the excuse that it was a war song penned in 1792 to rally the troops. So, if someone isn’t French, they’re by implication “impure”? It’s racist, especially for a country that today has many citizens with African and Caribbean heritage. When the French football team lines up, it’s quite evident that many of them are non-white, particularly those soccer superstars, such as Zidane, Henry, Vieira and Mbappe.

French actor Lambert Wilson has long called for a change. He said of ‘La Marseillaise,’ “The lyrics are terrible, bloody, racist and xenophobic, and from another time. The music is fantastic, but there are many words that you can’t listen to.” 

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Across the Channel, Britain also has its own cross to bear. Its national anthem includes the lines: “Send her victorious / Happy and glorious / Long to reign over us / God save the Queen! / One realm of races four / Blest more and ever more / God save our land!” The reference to four constitutes the parts of the United Kingdom. The Irish element of the quartet was taken by force, when England alone initially invaded, ruled, and abused the natives, and then Great Britain partitioned the country into two, as it remains to this day. Conquering and stripping people of their freedom is hardly something worthy of praise.

The anthem also glorifies the monarch and her reign. Yet the British monarchy has been blighted by the empire it oversaw, which colonized lands, assumed control of precious resources, and forced indigenous populations into servitude.That’s why so many British merchants became rich from rice, tobacco and sugar.

In Australia, meanwhile, the national anthem, ‘Advance, Australia Fair’ similarly airbrushes out centuries of history in an instant. Its lyrics begin, “Australia’s sons, let us rejoice / For we are young and free” and go on to say, “For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share.

The choice of the word “young” is interesting, considering Aboriginals were there 65,000 years before any white person. 

And “free” and “share” are particularly distasteful, given there was no choice in giving up their land to the uninvited European settlers – it was stripped from them without permission. Australian opera singer Deborah Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman makes her opposition to the anthem clear: “The song does not take into account the generations of indigenous life on this continent.

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The same charge is labelled at Canada, whose anthem opens with the line: “O Canada! / Our home and native land!” The First Nations people who were forced from their homes long before the anthem was written in 1880 by judge and author Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, a descendant of settlers, would have had something to say about that.

Even a relatively new nation such as Israel, formed in 1948, really has to confront this issue. Its national anthem gets going with the lines: “O, while within a Jewish heart / Yearns true a Jewish soul / And Jewish glances turning East / To Zion fondly dart.” While the majority of Israel’s population may be Jewish, what about the remaining 25 percent? They’re mainly split between Islam and Christianity. This narrow-minded anthem is informing them, in no uncertain terms, that they aren’t proper Israelis, because of their creed.

There’s nothing wrong with national pride. But we all need to question what that pride is reflecting. Should honoring racism, slavery and subjugation be allowed to continue under the guise of an anthem and an outpouring of patriotic emotion? 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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