It’s primary voting day here in California. Which is why I’m reposting this slightly edited post from February. Voting makes me feel so American.
“The Star-Spangled Banner”
One of Whitney Houston’s star turns was her performance of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 1991. She had the style of voice and just enough vocal range to knock it out of the park, a truly fine performance of a song that I consider almost unsingable. The reminder that she did it well made me think of other times I’ve heard excellent performances of our National Anthem. There was a common denominator to the ones I picked out.
First of all, since “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable except by someone with a remarkable voice and vocal range (think opera, not pop/rock), instrumental/orchestral versions are almost always superior. But of the times I’ve heard it sung more than passably by a popular singer, Whitney Houston and Marvin Gaye are the two that come to mind. And instrumentally, I am especially partial to Jimi Hendrix’s sunrise anthem at Woodstock (god bless the solid body electric guitar). And it suddenly dawned on me that all the versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” I find truly inspiring (well, the ones that don’t involve either patriotic events or small children) are all by African-Americans. It’s an interesting coincidence.
Race relations in the United States, especially between blacks and whites, are difficult to discuss. It’s such an emotional, complicated topic that even today, when we have an African-American president, it is impossible to come to any sort of resolution. Of course, that may be because there is no resolution yet. Racism will always exist, and those of us who believe in equality and freedom will always have to battle people who think ignorance and bigotry are a god-given right. We fought a horrible civil war largely over the racist institution of slavery. We had to amend the Constitution to make sure that black people were given the same civil rights as white people. We’ve had to bring in military troops just so black students could attend school with white students. The Supreme Court had to rule that there is no such thing as “separate but equal” before racist laws were struck down. There is nothing about the history of black-white relations in this country that is not somehow tinged with (often bloody) struggle.
I used to wonder when I was younger why so many African-Americans made everything about race, why they were always bringing it in to every conversation and discussion. And then it dawned on me (thank you Ralph Ellison): It’s always about race for black people because white people never, ever let them forget that they’re black. They’re not the ones making it about race; it’s a white-dominated society with its institutionalized racism making it about race.
Which makes the fact that these performances of our National Anthem especially poignant. It’s not something that gets highlighted very often, and I’ll bet Whitney, Marvin, and Jimi were well aware of it. They understood the power they had–the power of their talent–to bring people together for those few moments. And they knew how important it was that they were Americans. Black Americans. That it wasn’t about the color of their skin or even the content of their characters in that moment. They were simply Americans, singing their National Anthem for other Americans.