When is Singing The National Anthem Considered Unpatriotic?

BlogHer Original Post

Rene Marie Sings Black National Anthem Instead

Jazz Singer Rene Marie was booked to sing the national anthem at the annual Denver mayoral state of the city speech (click to read more of Amy Gahran's take on the reporting of the event).

Marie has said that she was engaging in both art and protest.

As Barack Obama was stopping in the state of Colorado the day after, the Democratic convention will be held in Denver and Obama is black, he was asked to make a statement about Marie's performance despite the fact that he was in no way associated with Marie or the event.

Reactions have ranged from supportive, nuanced historical perspectives, anger, outrage, calls for Marie to be sued for breech of contract (she was not paid for the performance), to extreme racism (white racist websites and blogs are having a field day with this).

I am disappointed, though not at all surprised, that most of the reaction has been facile anger with very few examinations of the legitimacy of Marie's claims that her performance constituted art or how it functioned as a form of protest. Similarly I'm saddened but, again, not at all surprised by the depth of professed lack of knowledge of US history.

Yes there is a song titled "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" which became known as The Negro National Anthem or Negro National Hymn (which is how it was formally recognized by Congress). As the term Negro has fallen out of use, it is now often referred to as The Black National Anthem.

In the video it appears that nobody recognizes the lyrics Marie sings to the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner." Outraged reaction followed once it became known that the lyrics (originally written as a poem) were from something known as The Black National Anthem.

While I remain of the belief that the discussions of race which are arising during this political season are important as catalysts to painful but necessary discussions, I fear this incident unfortunately has only served to fuel mostly anger, hatred and prolonged ignorance.

Maybe we can have a discussion here that digs a little deeper. Do you think this a legitimate form of performance art? Did it serve as subversive protest? Does Lift Ev'ry Voice still serve a roll as a "national anthem" for black Americans? Why do we require Obama to speak to every controversial action a black person takes in this country?

Personally I enjoyed the musical mashup and found it interesting from an artistic perspective. And I thought it was effective as a form of protest. Who better than artists to be subversive, to shake us up and get us talking? I wish deeply that some folks will be inspired to learn more about this song, the role it has played in this country's history and will move beyond the superficial reaction many are having to the reference to race in the alternate title. And, seriously people, Marie's choice and expression of thought has nothing to do with Senator Obama.

Jill Tubman at Jack & Jill Politics observes (and click through to see the site's gorgeous and cheeky redesign if you haven't seen it):

I suppose I’d be more sympathetic if her decision to hijack Denver’s annual state of the city meeting was promoting awareness for a specific injustice happening in America or locally Colorado perhaps. Then perhaps it might be construed as a courageous act. As it is though, it seems deceptive — she wasn’t contracted to sing the black national anthem (which is a gorgeous inspirational song). They asked her to sing the National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, which all African-Americans recognize and sing as our nation’s official anthem.

I’m not sure why this has received so much media attention unless the goal is to portray African-Americans, including and especially Barack Obama as unpatriotic. That’s not real and is Afrpatently false. And shame on the media for trumpeting the story. It’s like a gift to Fox News. Ugh — I’m personally embarrassed.

Queen Ester at Kudzu, Mon Amour recalls the importance of Lift Ev'ry Voice to the black community:

every black anyone in my little kid world knew this song and they knew it cold. they sang it from the heart, with feeling. and in a way, all of us knowing this song gave us a kind of solidarity and a unity that bloomed all the time.

feeling this togetherness as a child in the south amongst black folk gave me a glimpse into the jim crow years that my now 92 year old father lived through and how, in the moments when all we had was each other, we looked out for each other in so many unspoken ways that don't seem to happen anymore ...

i don't know every negro in america but i can't think of any black people that don't know this song. don't believe me? ask an african-american you know to sing it. i don't think we should stop singing it until they acknowledge what happened and apologize for it. there has never been a collective reckoning amongst all americans, where we talk about these things openly and deal with our feelings in a supportive way. like south africa, we need a truth and reconciliation commission of our own.

Sheryl at Girl, Get Me Started! asks "can the black national anthem ever be inappropriate?"

Yes, sometimes we are angry at the way we are treated, but you don’t have to shake red, white, and blue pom-poms all the time to show how much you love this country—any more than loving your relatives means that you must grin at them all the time.

All of that being said, Marie’s action also introduces this question: why can’t the Black National Anthem—its call for hope, faith, and perseverance in the face of oppression—belong to all Americans?

Sociologist Sue Greer-Pitt deconstructs an email forward she received expressing outrage over Marie's performance and asks:

Here's my bet -- if this woman had substituted Amazing Grace for The Star Spangled Banner how upset would these same people be? Would it have made a national news story? Or if a white woman had sung these exact same words, with no one mentioning the phrase "black national anthem" wouldn't these same people be defending her against the ACLU for bringing God (mentioned 4 times in Lift Ev'ry Voice and only 1 time in The Star Spangled Banner) into a political arena?

Content Black Woman points out:

Look at the words of the Black National Anthem. There is nothing about it that is un-American or unpatriotic. Look at your negative reaction - if you have one. It might speak more to your own insecurity and fears of loss.

Fredric at Young Black Professional Guide believes:

Art is always meant to push the envelope and stretch our comfort zones, sometimes uncontrollably. Whether its in the form of raunchy comedy like Chappelle show or unique painted art from Picasso, art tickles are practicality and laughs in its face for being so stubborn.

The real question, however, is whether the current political climate and ‘frank conversations about race’ will ultimately drown this event into an argument about what it means to be American. I’m betting that it will…

Jefferson Morley at The Colorado Independent offers a history lesson in a post that examines Rene Marie's patriotic lesson:

By all accounts, after her performance Marie received a warm round of applause from the slightly puzzled crowd. And there was nothing unpatriotic about it. By singing the melody of "The Star Spangled Banner" but not the familiar “Oh say, can you see...” Marie's effort was likely more an attempt at racial healing. In effect, she forgave the man who penned the national anthem, Francis Scott Key, for his racism....

Those who see controversy in Marie’s song choice not only miss the point, they miss the patriotism.

“As we begin our fourth century as a nation,” Sen. Obama had said the day before in his patriotism address, “it is easy to take the extraordinary nature of America for granted. But it is our responsibility as Americans and as parents to instill that history in our children, both at home and at school. The loss of quality civic education from so many of our classrooms has left too many young Americans without the most basic knowledge of who our forefathers are, or what they did, or the significance of the founding documents that bear their names. Too many children are ignorant of the sheer effort, the risks and sacrifices made by previous generations, to ensure that this country survived war and depression; through the great struggles for civil, and social, and worker’s rights.”

Too many children — and too many adults — are ignorant of the complex strands of race and history that are woven into our history but this presidential campaign may be starting to change all that.

However, many bloggers are outraged:

Sugar and Sugar N Spice believes Marie is an "Obamazoid:"

Seriously though, Ms. Marie was way out of line. Way out. They didn't ask her to come up with "something special" for the occasion. She was asked to sing the "Star Spangled Banner". I don't know this woman from Adam, but I'm willing to bet everything I own, she's one of these crazed Obama supporters. I mean, what.in.the.hell!? She could have even talked to them and told them she was going to do this, but to just spring it on them? hahahahaha Too crazy! She needs to lay off of the Obama kook-aid (not a typo) something terrible!

Bridget at Don't Get Me Started says:

This is ridiculous! There is NO substitute for the national anthem and what this woman did was rude and in poor taste. There should be no such thing as a ‘black’ national anthem. We’re all Americans. If you want to separate yourself, then go form your own country somewhere and you can use that song as your national anthem.

Carol at The Median Sib writes:

I didn’t realize there was a “Black National Anthem” but apparently there is. Video and lyrics are here. Now we learn that the black national anthem is “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which is a great song. I just didn’t realize it had been designated as the black national anthem. I wonder if there is a national anthem for Irish-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, gay Americans. Most of all, I wonder when we’ll just be Americans and end all these divisive sub-groups. Having a “Black National Anthem” does no one - of any color - any good....

And folks, it is time to stop all this stupid division... Let’s stop allowing ourselves to be boxed in and all be AMERICANS.

And Venomous Kate at Electric Venom asks "how many national anthems do we need?"

Not surprisingly the response has been heated with the word “racist” being bandied about by both sides. And me? I just don’t get it. I don’t understand any circumstances under which a person would think it’s appropriate for them to swap out lyrics to a national song to be sung at a civic event just to advance their own agenda, which is precisely what the singer was trying to accomplish. Under Marie’s own reasoning, would it still be “art” if, say, some good ol’ boy bluegrass singer in Mississippi decided to sing “Dixie” at the start of a city government meeting?

BlogHer CE Maria Niles last sang Lift Ev'ry Voice at her Great Aunt's funeral.

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