The Star Spangled Banner in the Distance at Fort McHenry

The Star Spangled Banner in the Distance at Fort McHenryI left my car in Federal Hill on Friday, so today I had to ride my bike over there to fetch it. First, though, an early ride to Waverly to meet J. and C. to tend our young beehive. Bees are amazing. Their wings are lace-thin and always moving, and the whole hive vibrates, hums, and gives off a waxy heat. Today we tried to redirect some of their combing and in the process, had to remove some comb (and got to taste the honey), delicious.

The bees will keep collecting pollen for as long as they can and then it will be winter, and they will eat the honey for fuel, with their thread-like tongues darting in and out of the cells, and in the spring, we’ll gather up what’s left and gorge ourselves. All of this assumes, of course, that nothing untoward will happen to cause a hive collapse, and at this point I’m  just feeling lucky, because you know what’s happening to bees, right?

We parted ways and I headed down the hill, Trayvon Martin on my mind, thanking the bees for their provision of a short respite. Much has been said about this case and the issues of structural racism, rhetorics of crime and criminality, the dangers of going to the state to ask for redress when the state itself is a source of so much violence, and questions about what “justice” can ever mean in this place and time of ours, and all of that was running through my head as I rode out to Fort McHenry for a tour before grabbing the car. I locked up the bike on the otherwise empty bike racks and headed into into the visitor’s center of the fort, an official National Shrine (the other one is the house where Stonewall Jackson died–I’m totally serious). I wanted to see what this shrine to The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave would have to say about that central contradiction where our freedom is wholly tied up with slavery, a condition marked here by black skin. I sifted through the representations: there was the chipper story about men and women of all races working together as citizen-soldiers to build the earthworks that would protect the city; the story of the 200 or so men who fought for the British and thereby earned their freedom; the replica hogshead filled with tobacco that represented the immense cost of the war, the laboring people lost behind this abstract language; the triumphant tale of a nation united and an expansion justified by the (non)victory of 1812; and this bit about Francis Scott Key himself, a man who “tried to reconcile being a slaveholder with his firm belief in justice and the leadership of the Christian faith,” who believed slavery was wrong–and even emancipated some of his slaves–but “feared the social and economic consequences of mass emancipation, favoring a more gradual process of sending free blacks to a colony in Africa.”

This National Shrine understands black people in the early Republic period as citizens like anybody else (deeply not true, especially in Baltimore, a city where not only was slavery legal, but its port was an active way station for the slave trade); as men bartering their very lives for a chance at freedom, however harsh it turned out to be; as abstract labor that produced the commodity that abstracted value (hint: there are no people here); and the author of the song could be both a slaveowner and “ready to brave odious or even personal danger” on behalf of enslaved people, so deeply did he yearn for the “home of the free.” I thought about these various ways of accounting for Blackness in the story of the War of 1812, and I thought about how hard it is, even in this tiny space, for mass representation to hold on for more than a moment or two to the fact that the Black people are even human in these stories. When I think about this case, I think about it in the context of institutionalized structural racism and the work that has gone in to making this most American of traditions: hating Black people, showing all the ugliness of being absolutely blase about deaths like those of Trayvon Martin and the myriad other souls lost every day. Our National Shrine cannot even get it together to make a consistent representation that enslaved people were people.  And then I got back on my bike, snapped this picture of Old Glory waving in the breeze, rode back to my car, strapped the bike to the back, and drove us all home in time to get back on my bike and head down to a rally for justice for Trayvon and all the Trayvons past and present. I don’t know what to do, so sometimes, when you don’t know what to do, you go stand with as many folks as you can find who are willing to stand there too. And then I walked home with N. and told her about the way bees drink their own nectar and honey: with what look like two little darting red needles poked in the pool of honey and sucking everything up. Because that also happened today.


2 thoughts on “The Star Spangled Banner in the Distance at Fort McHenry

  1. I don’t know what to do either. So, I too am thinking about all the people we stand near. I’m thinking about when I was a kid at risk. About cops we ran from (or rode our bikes to escape, cutting school in 1977) who didn’t shoot at us…
    …surely more to come. We live in a connected place now!

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