I’ll preface this blog with a word of caution to readers that some may experience an intensely negative reaction to any number of sections of the reflections to follow. I do believe, however, that if one allows themselves to sit with that discomfort and read to the end (as I had to process my own discomfort before choosing what I would do), what I share may illuminate some other possibilities of thought and feeling. So if you’re still in the mood, read on.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to sing the National Anthem at the final night of the Miss Maryland Scholarship Competition, aka the Miss Maryland Pageant. The performer part of me accepted immediately, grateful for another opportunity to exercise my improving technique on stage and for some quality video content to add to my YouTube channel.
About five minutes after having accepted, another part of me– influenced, though not defined by my ethnicity and awareness of my ancestry– cringed as I remembered everything about this anthem and what it means to most to perform it. A celebration of brutal carnage and unnecessary strife. The dishonesty by omission of my people’s existence and the systemic murder and annihilation of so many who may or may not have had the opportunity to birth descendants to be so fortunate as to consciously reflect on the abominable history that brought them to these shores or usurped and destroyed the land that was theirs. A legacy of delusional exceptionalism which enables many citizens of this nation to remain willfully ignorant if not knowingly apathetic of the persistent injustice that plagues marginalized and historically excluded people who are part of this nation’s identity, bidden or unbidden. All of this in the wake of shameful (though at least to me, not surprising) policies and practices sanctioned by state and federal government in what we would wish to be a contemporary further from America’s dark past than we can truthfully claim. Could I really in good consciousness and truth to myself, my family and my ancestors stand and participate in something so viscerally repulsive to my being by singing this song?
Perhaps this was the artistic domain of my consciousness which entered this internal dialogue, thinking to myself first, they didn’t specify which national anthem. I’ve long believed that “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was more befitting as an anthem for this nation; written originally as something of a counter thought to the patriotic ethos expected for the poem by James Weldon Johnson which was commissioned to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. For decades it was sung in Black communities as a hymn of solidarity in the wake of the Reconstruction Era, which abysmally failed Black citizens and those formerly enslaved.
I knew, however, that this was absolutely not the song they were asking for.
Reflecting on the text, it occurred to me to combine the songs, quoting the first B section of “Lift Ev’ry Voice”:
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us…
before beginning “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Imagining this, it dawned on me that the verse most traditionally sung is mostly a question:
O, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming…?
Now, I thought, I can actually ask this question of those listening. They can make of it what they will– but if this song is sung with some sort of reverence for the gravely dark past from which it behooves us to learn that we may have hope for a future in which the ideals of this nation could truly be actualized.
Can we collectively reflect on the destructive inception of this nation’s “independence” (read: a government of White men, for White men, by White men to not have to follow the rules of the White supremacist monarchy from which they hailed) in the moment of persistent unrest and behold the image of our war-singed flag at the center of it all? Is this really what everyone wants to be? If we don’t turn blind eyes to red-glaring truths (like euphemizing “slavery” as “involuntary location”), does everyone really like what they see? I don’t even believe that even most of those who proudly claim to be highly patriotic citizens would or do. Can someone who is pro-life behold the burning of communities that destroyed land and killed families and hang this portrait on the walls where they worship? Can someone who believes that human life is an exceptionally holy element of God’s creation look in the eyes of babies, children, parents and elderly who have to consume polluted water which is known to be damaging to their health, know it’s the hands of the government by which it was tainted and beam with pride? These are mere crumbs of truth of multiple points of America’s dark past and bleak present, which is why they/we refuse to look, or deny what is staring us in the face. Our own uncanny reflection which is antithetical to what we wish to see in ourselves.
The more I thought about it, the more it felt like this was the only acceptable choice, save deciding to decline after all. The latter option, however, would only make space for someone else to do it per expectations. At least this way, I thought, I had the opportunity to offer listeners what I believe to be a more truthful rendition and reflection of what America is. The added benefit of not being a particularly “known” entity and it being a subtle expression of what some would believe to be a deeply controversial statement, there was little to lose or gain. Sharing the intent of this rendition and performance in this, my designated space, seems appropriate enough.
One of many things I believe to have learned in retrospect from my experience as Miss Maryland– having wished after the Miss America competition that I had simply been my whole, true self (natural hair, my style and not “the pageant look” since even attempts at conforming to Eurocentric and youth/pop-culture standards would still not meet the bar)– is that I would rather regret trying to be true to myself and getting it wrong than regret self betrayal… and still getting it wrong (twice over). So here I am, doing what made sense to me at the time. I will only ever sing what I know and believe to be the truth.