The journalist Jon Schwarz, writing in The Intercept, argued yes, denouncing the lyrics, written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, as “a celebration of slavery.” How could black players, Mr. Schwarz asked, be expected to stand for a song whose rarely sung third stanza — which includes the lines “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” — “literally celebrates the murder of African-Americans”?
That argument drew outrage from some conservative news outlets, as well as a more scholarly rebuttal from Mark Clague, a musicologist at the University of Michigan and the founding board chairman of the Star Spangled Music Foundation. We spoke with Mr. Clague, who is writing a book about the song, about the anthem’s history and shifting meanings. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why do you think those who call the song racist are wrong?
The social context of the song comes from the age of slavery, but the song itself isn’t about slavery, and it doesn’t treat whites differently from blacks. The reference to slaves is about the use, and in some sense the manipulation, of black Americans to fight for the British, with the promise of freedom. The American forces included African-Americans as well as whites. The term “freemen,” whose heroism is celebrated in the fourth stanza, would have encompassed both. (Link to rest of the interview)