Two weeks ago, Bill Maher revealed that he only recently learned about the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the unofficial “Black national anthem,” and it really annoyed him. He got criticized about that by Whoopie Goldberg on “The View“, which only annoyed him further, so on Friday’s episode of “Real Time,” he made it the central topic of his “New Rules” segment. We just wish he’d maybe done a Wikipedia pass first.
So what kicked this off is the news that, like it did in 2020, the National Football League will be playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at certain games, in addition to “The Star Spangled Banner.” When Maher brought that up on the Sep. 10 episode of “Real Time,” he said he was open to ditching the “Star Spangled Banner,” but expressed concern that the existence of something like an unofficial national anthem for Black people is part of what he thinks is a slide backward into segregation of people by race.
Maher continued upon that line of thinking on Friday’s episode of “Real Time,” starting with “New rule: the only time there should be two national anthems is when the other team is from Canada.”
Maher reiterated his contention that he isn’t opposed to ditching the current national anthem for a new one, but said “We just shouldn’t have two… Now, I don’t believe we should enforce patriotism by singing anything. And if there’s one thing I hate more than groupthink, it’s audience participation. But I am what you might call an old school liberal who was brought up with the crazy idea that segregating by race is bad. That’s what I was talking about.”
Maher continued along these lines for a while, explaining that in his opinion, “symbols of unity matter. And purposefully fragmenting things by race reinforces a terrible message that we are two nations hopelessly drifting apart from each other. That’s not where we were even 10 years ago, and it’s not where we should be now.”
After playing a clip of Barack Obama’s famous speech from the 2004 Democratic National Convention, as well as quoting from a book by a Black author criticizing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he said “If we have two anthems, why not three or five? Why not a women’s anthem, a Latino anthem, a gay, trans, indigenous peoples and Asian/Pacific Islander anthem.”
“‘I’m not dealing with you, I’m not speaking to you’ is not a way you can run a country, and most people of all backgrounds understand that already and don’t even want to try to do it that way<” Maher added. “I’m not out of step. Believing in separate but equal. That’s out of step by 67 years. It was 67 years ago, in 1954, when the Supreme Court handed down their landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling, which said, separate but equal isn’t what we do here. We decided we’re going to try to make this work together.”
Maher brought up the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, and contrasted it to statistics he said he worries indicate that colleges and other institutions are favoring segregation for purportedly liberal reasons, joking “congratulations liberal parents, you just paid a hundred grand for your kid to move to Biloxi, Mississippi in 1948.”
He went on along these lines for a few more minutes, before declaring “most Americans, including nearly 80% of African Americans, want to live in racially diverse neighborhoods. The Black silent majority seems to be behind the idea that you can’t have a melting pot with two pots.”
“Yes, America was born from the original sin of slavery, and redress for that is certainly still in order. But not at the cost of destroying a country that most Black people now have found a decent life in, with a relatively high standard of living and don’t want to lose. And Balkanizing our nation will certainly cause us to lose it,” Maher continued. “We need to stop regarding this new woke segregation as if it’s some sort of cultural advancement. It’s not. Ask Yugoslavia.”
Maher concluded by noting the horrors that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the massacres in Rwanda, and sectarian violence in places like Ireland, Iraq, India and Afghanistan. “We need to unite as one nation who come together and sing one anthem always out of key. and that’s all of it.”
You can watch the whole thing above. But we’d like to take a moment to clear something up. There isn’t actually a “Black National Anthem,” that’s just a nickname given to “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” For good reason too. Written by James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, the song was created for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.
It’s a celebration of emancipation filled with biblical imagery that also centers the Black experience in an American context. Beautiful words set to beautiful music that have factored for more than a century in both secular and religious occasions.
One thing it is not, however, is some kind of subversive assault on American unity by “woke” segregationists trying to break the country apart. You, the reader, have probably noticed that a great many African American artists have sang their hearts out when performing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
But, as the Washington Post explained in 2020, there’s a really good reason why many Black people in America might not feel great about “The Star Spangled Banner”: It’s insanely racist.
Only the first verse of “The Star Spangled Banner” is sung at public events and other places where people are encouraged to make ostentatious displays of patriotism. And it’s fine, a few sentences about how America survived something that could have been fatal.
Here’s the third verse:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
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.
That highlighted line is a celebration of the deaths of slaves. One of the contributing factors to the War of 1812 was the British offer of freedom and land to any slave who escaped and joined the British military. That is who “no refufe could save.”
And in case there’s any ambiguity, Francis Scott Key, who wrote the poem, was himself a white supremacist from a slave owning plantation family who only supported the idea of emancipation if slaves were then deported to Africa and who as District Attorney of Washington, D.C. during the Jackson administration devoted the city’s law enforcement to a specifically pro-slavery agenda.
He also pulled strings to have his brother-in-law, Roger B. Taney, appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taney is the author of the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision.