President of Rutgers University and University Professor
Acknowledging Juneteenth is a dark act of commemoration; a statement that this country should continue the hard work to become the beacon of freedom and virtuous independence that it claims to be. Juneteenth, the federally recognized holiday that honors the emancipation of slaves, is a reminder that freedom is incomplete if it is based on anything but the truth. A close look at the history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” helps shine a light on the significance of a holiday like Juneteenth.
In September 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem called “The Defense of Fort M’Henry”, when he saw the flag of the United States defiantly waved the morning after British warships had spent a night bombarding the Fort McHenry in Baltimore. More than a century later, this poem would officially become the national anthem of this country. It’s a song that speaks of resilience and salutes the freedom and bravery that are the foundation of this country’s values. This is familiar to those who claim to know a little about our nation’s history, but like most national founding stories, we have arrived at the familiar through a commitment to forget.
Few people know, for example, that there are four stanzas in the original poem. The second, third and fourth stanzas are more martial than the first, aggressively criticizing external threats to independence, and all end in the same way, hailing the flag and its depiction of the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. “. But freedom for whom? Who in this country is brave?
In 1861, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes added an unofficial fifth stanza to Key’s original four. This verse, written at the dawn of the Civil War, spoke of an internal threat – the secessionists of the South – and looked forward to a day when there would be no irony in the final lines of the poem:
When our land is illuminated with the smile of Liberty,
If an enemy within deals a blow to his glory,
Down, down, with the traitor who dares to defile
The flag of its stars and the page of its history!
By the raging millions who won our birthright
We will keep her shining coat of arms forever spotless!
And the star-spangled banner in triumph will wave
While the land of the free is the homeland of the brave.
Holmes’ stanza is an invocation of possibility, a reminder of when the United States would truly become the free land it claims to be. What is implied in this stanza, and what Juneteenth celebrants understand, is that much work remains to realize the declaration of the anthem.
In 2022, we remain hard at work on this task. The brave among us recognize that it is difficult to be honest about this nation’s history, but committing to telling a solid story that acknowledges our triumphs and shortcomings is a deeply patriotic act. After all, how can we enjoy our victories – how can we celebrate our excellence with integrity – without knowing the occasions when we have failed?