A preposition can make all the difference.
While performing the Canadian national anthem at the NBA All-Star game in Salt Lake City, Utah, in February, Jully Black changed one word — “our home and native land” to “our home on native land.”
“I didn’t realize that my action would garner such a response,” Black, a Jamaican-Canadian singer-songwriter, said. She sung for a change, using “O Canada,” the country’s national anthem and the Assembly of First Nations chiefs recognized her for it.
It was a one-word difference, though not of opinion. Black recognized the history of settler colonialism and named its truth. “Our home and native land is a lie. Our home on Native land is the truth,” Black said.
While she received some criticism from those who are Canadian-born and consider themselves “native,” she was honored in April by the Indigenous community. They draped her in a star blanket and gave her an eagle feather. In Indigenous culture, feathers are a symbol of high honor, representing what is highest and holiest.
It wasn’t an artistic decision. Instead, Black offered an example that can be shared with Americans, who struggle to reconcile their shared history.
The “Star-Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem, is not without criticism, though it often comes with fireworks and thunderous applause. Written by Francis Scott Key, it is often sung at sporting events and at Independence Day celebrations.
There are four verses, though the first verse is most popular. It’s ending — “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” — is met with cheers after the singer hits the anticipated high note. But that’s not the end of the song. Keep singing.
The third verse includes these words: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Key names a different condition for those in this social position, and we would do well to address it.
Frederick Douglass, a prominent abolitionist who was born into slavery, famously pointed out the hypocrisy and inconsistency of the national holiday considering American slavery.
“What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” Douglass asked his audience.
He had been invited by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society to deliver the speech on July 4, 1852, at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass decided to deliver it in on July 5 instead.
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass inquired. His searing oration reminded his audience that all Americans were not having the same experience.
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” Douglass said.
It was addressed to a nation in moral crisis. The speech was just two years removed from the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that African Americans who were enslaved be returned to their “owners.”
As part of the Compromise of 1850, the U.S. government would assist in returning “runaway slaves,” who were not considered citizens and thus, were without legal protection. Given this context, Douglass’ critique is justified.
Unfortunately, it also remains true. America still fails to live up to the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Consequently, patriotism often sounds different for marginalized and minoritized groups.
“I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries. My parents rejected all dogmas,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in Between the World and Me.
“We spurned the holidays marketed by the people who wanted to be white. We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God,” he said.
There is healing in truth-telling, so powerful that it can be accomplished with a single word. Perhaps, Black’s courage will inspire us to change our tune and sing about our home on native land.