Gladys Knight spoke about singing the national anthem for Super Bowl Llll in an interview posted by the NFL on YouTube. Amid criticism from a small but vocal collection of activists, Knight has maintained her calm and is sticking to her decision to sing the anthem. Knight has seen and participated in all aspects of the Civil Rights movement, recounting having to give separate performances for white and black audiences in the South of yesteryear.
Her perceptions of the anthem are different than the song’s critics. Those critics see the lyrics in the third verse as controversial because of words like “the hireling and slave.” The reference quite possibly referred to slaves who fought on the side of the British in the War of 1812, making them opponents of the colonies. The terms could also apply to men conscripted by force to fight for Britain, similar to the conscription of Irish immigrants to fight for the US in the Civil War. For various takes on the issue if you want to learn more, here are some sources and annotations.
The Root (extreme left of center) puts forth a theory that the anthem is racist. The essayist at The Root posits that’s the “hidden racist history” of the anthem.
The National Review (centrist right) puts forth a more nuanced theory, placing the words in historical context.
If you’re really interested in this, just for kicks, you can read an analysis at Snopes (considered left-leaning by some).
My own take is that the song is a product of its time and is an historical artifact with flexibility. Most of us don’t think of slavery when we hear the song although slavery was practiced globally at the time the song was written. Scholars deliberately refuse to explore slavery unless it relates to the early years of the US Republic.
It’s the height of irony, in one sense, that in the years prior to the US Civil War, abolitionists in the US were fighting slavery inflicted on Africans brought to the US while people of color were exploiting white Christians as slaves in North Africa. Populations have long been used politically for power and profit, regardless of skin color.
I’ve often said the history of the human race is a history of exploitation and conquest crossing ethnic, religious, and tribal lines. It’s too bad no one points that out in the interest of enlightenment about humans’ cruelty to humans.
Gladys Knight doesn’t have to apologize to anyone for singing the anthem. She marched with Rev. Martin Luther King at a time when doing so could be extremely perilous. She lived through Jim Crow, persevered, and became one of the most beloved vocalists in our country.
Knight has managed to gracefully address the controversy in her remarks to the NFL interviewer. She put forth a message of hope I personally agree with:
“I hope that this anthem will touch people in a different way—we been singing it forever, but this time, I would hope that they would feel it so deeply that it would lift them to a higher place. That’s what I feel when I sing this song. This is who we are. This is how we are. And this is what we do.”
Still lovely and upbeat, and perhaps remembering the days when she and her band had to do those separate concerts, Knight concluded the NFL interview by saying with a big smile, “Get ready, Atlanta! I’m coming home.”
It’s a given Atlanta and many of us in other states will be happy to celebrate the success of Gladys Knight. For this remarkable performer, music is indeed a bridge.
Note: The featured image is snipped from the Mercedes Benz Stadium website: mercedesbenzstadium.com.
(Kay B. Day/Jan. 23, 2019)