Mother Jones


Coming to terms with our racist musical heritage

LAST WINTER, about 10 months before Donald Trump managed to revive Colin Kaepernick’s protest movement and set off a fresh debate on race, patriotism, and the emotional stability of the president, Ben Hunter was asked to perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a crowd of about 600 people. The occasion was the annual conference of Citizen University, a nonprofit run by former Clinton White House adviser Eric Liu—Hunter was the event’s musician-in-residence. But the anthem request gave him pause.

Hunter, 32, is biracial and identifies as black. He took up classical violin at age five and now, as part of a Seattle-based duo with banjo player Joe Seamons, makes his living researching and performing old-time American music. So he knew a bit about the anthem’s dark past.

At first he said he’d do it if he could sing the whole song—including the

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