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National Anthem’s ‘Slave’ Lyric Is Proudly On Display In Golden Gate Park

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Detail of a panel of the Francis Scott Key statue in Golden Gate Park, arrow added by me

Some people refuse to stand for the national anthem because of an ugly-sounding “slave” lyric in the song’s little-known third stanza. But this ugly-sounding reference is actually on permanent display in Golden Gate Park, glorified for all time at the Francis Scott Key statue in the Music Concourse between the deYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. The Star-Spangled Banner lyric “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave” sounds massively racist to the modern ear, but remains curiously  immortalized at the base of the the park’s Francis Scott Key statue whose maintenance is supported by your tax dollars.


Top of the Francis Scott Key Statue in Golden Gate Park

This is not exactly “breaking news” — that statue has been sitting there for 128 years, looking the exact same it ever has, with no changes whatsoever ever implemented. Millions of people have walked past this statue (you probably have too!) and no one has ever really noticed the inscription, which is frankly pretty beaten down by the effects of more than 100 years of weather and the inscription is difficult to notice.

But in the wake of the Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest, many of Kaepernick’s supporters have alleged that the song has a “hidden racist history”. Deep in the anthem’s obscure third stanza, which admittedly is never performed at events or sportsball games, we do see the unsettling lyric “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”. Historians agree this is a reference to hired hands and black slaves who took up forces with the British army in the War of 1812, and contemporary black activists argue that the lyric “openly celebrates the murder of slaves”.


Northern panel of the Francis Scott Key statue. The “slave” lyric is in the fifth line.

The Francis Scott Key statue in Golden Gate Park contains all four stanzas of the Star-Spangled Banner, including the controversial “slave” lyric which can be seen on the northern-side base of the statue that faces the deYoung Museum. It has been there since 1888 — at which point the Star-Spangled Banner was just some standard pop song that would not be christened the national anthem for another 43 years.

Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, who has brought attention to the obscure and racist-sounding lyric, has called Francis Scott Key a “a stone cold bigot”. I’m no historian, but that might be a little harsh. To his credit, Key was not just some asshole Fox News pundit running his mouth. He was a volunteer in the War of 1812 negotiating for the release of American hostages.


Actual Francis Scott Key part of the Francis Scott Key monument

Key did own seven slaves, but he freed four of them and did represent African American slaves suing for their freedom in court, according to music scholar and historian Mark Clague. So Francis Scott Key’s record on race issues is kind of a mixed bag.

The Star-Spangled Banner nevertheless shares its conceptual DNA with the United States as a whole. It is a product of a time when the stain of slavery was clear on the nation and part of US law,” Clague argues in a very lengthy CNN essay defending Francis Scott Key. “Key is complicit to the extent that he was a pragmatist, who, like nearly all of America’s founders and early leaders, inexcusably put the prevailing social order ahead of universal human freedom.”

The song is ultimately a protest against the British. If you haven’t noticed, these days we are allies with the British. During World War I, the entire third stanza was omitted from all printed sheet versions of the song. Golly, maybe that’s a pretty good solution to this dilemma! Because the lyrics do not really draw any manner of distinction between slaves who do or do not deserve to be killed, and the tone of that lyric pretty much just sounds like slaves deserve to be killed.


Full monument of Francis Scott Key

Listen, I’m not saying we have to tear down the statue of Francis Scott Key over the inclusion of this lyric. I’m all for keeping historical relics intact, whether it’s rampant use of the n-word in Mark Twain novels, terrible incidents of racism in old silent movies or the standup comedy of Richard Pryor. But it might not hurt if SF Rec & Parks added a little placard or something to the statue saying, “Yeah, about that ‘slave’ lyric up there…”.

Because it is a legacy example of racism, it is on permanent display in Golden Gate Park, and it is part of The Star-Spangled Banner. If the national anthem contains trace samples of racism preserved in our parks and ballgame observances, then you don’t have to stand for it.

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Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.

1 Comment

  1. […] If you're angling to examine those lyrics some more, look no further than Golden Gate Park's music concourse (between the California Academy of Sciences and the de Young Museum). There, along with such far-flung monuments as statues of Cervantes and Schiller, is a central statue of Francis Scott Key, which has stood since 1888 and was recently observed by very special SFist correspondent Joe Kukura writing for the blog of Stuart Schuffman. […]