Abolitionists during Key’s lifetime viewed “The Star-Spangled Banner” as they viewed the nation as a whole — through the lens of the injustice perpetuated by slavery. They argued that Key should have described America as the “land of the free and home of the oppressed.”
.. The provenance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is itself deeply suspect. Key, who owned human beings, penned his celebration of freedom during a war in which the British had promised that very thing to enslaved African-Americans who agreed to fight on their side. The third stanza of the song — which ceased to be sung once warm relations were re-established with England — can be read as a reflection of Key’s anger at Britain’s overtures to the people he himself owned.
The passage reads in part: “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/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Contemporary thinkers disagree on whether the word “slave” was used as a generic insult that could be applied to people of any race or as a direct reference to African-Americans who joined the British side in the War of 1812. But imagine yourself an enslaved person serving refreshments to your masters and their guests as they all retire to the piano room to sing Key’s song as he had written it. There can be little doubt about what the passage referring to a “slave” would mean to you.
.. The Paradox of American Patriotism,” the door had been opened for racists and nativist groups like the Ku Klux Klan to appoint themselves custodians of what it meant to be an American.
.. It was not until the early 20th century that it acquired the stature of a sacred writ and became, in effect, a loyalty test and an excuse for people who called themselves patriots to harass and beat people who dissented from the song’s message.