Between consultations this afternoon, Gretchen left her desk in the reception area and popped into my office for a moment. “Tom,” she quietly informed me as she closed a heavy oak door behind her, “there’s this… Ebonic gentleman who’s been calling since about nine this morning asking for a consultation. He says he’s a professional basketball player.”
“Did he give you his name?” I inquired.
“Tyrone…” she replied with an uncertain grimace, “Tyrone Shoelace.”
“Hold on a minute,” I requested as I consulted an online database. “Nope,” I told her, “there’s nobody named that playing in the NBA. Must be an alias.”
“Should I tell him you’re not available?” she asked.
“Did he say what he wants to talk about?” I responded.
“Yes,” she nodded. “It’s about whether he should take a knee during the National Anthem.”
“Well,” I observed, “that explains the pseudonym, anyway. What the hell – see if you can book him for a telephone conference in the time block after two-thirty that opened up when Mitch McConnell’s wife cancelled right after lunch.”
“Dope, my [expletive],” she quipped with a smile and a wink, “I be doin’ dat right now.”
And, shortly before three o’clock, he called.
Tyrone: Yo! Tom Collins?
Tom: At your service, Mister… Shoelace.
Tyrone: Okay! Whatup?
Tom: I’m fine, thanks. Might I ask where you got my telephone number?
Tyrone: Uh… can’t say.
Tom: I see. You’re concerned about maintaining your anonymity, I take it?
Tyrone: Somethin’ like dat.
Tom: My private secretary told me you want some advice about “taking a knee” during the National Anthem?
Tyrone: Solid. And you ain’t gonna charge me nothin’, right?
Tom: Correct. Initial consultations are conducted without fee – it’s part of my marketing plan.
Tyrone: But if I want to talk to you after dat, then I gotta pay, right?
Tyrone: You take cash?
Tyrone: Okay, maybe I will.
Tom: That’s the idea. Now – how can I help you?
Tyrone: Well, uh… the NBA season be startin’ next month.
Tom: October seventeenth.
Tyrone: And they be playin’ the National Anthem, and I wanna know if I should be doin’ dat or not.
Tom: Taking a knee?
Tom: Well, then, can you tell me, Tyrone, what “taking a knee” means to you?
Tyrone: It mean… um… dat I don’ wanna stand up for it when they play that Stars and Stripes Forever ’cause America be all racial and [expletive].
Tom: I understand. You see it as a protest against centuries of ongoing discrimination, oppression and injustice.
Tyrone: Yeah, right, all that [expletive]. And stuck-up blonde white [expletives] who don’t suck [expletive] and [expletive] like that, too.
Tom: I see.
Tyrone: Not even after you buy ’em Cristal and coke and drive ’em around in a Ferrari 488 GTB!
Tom: And to protest police violence against persons of color, of course.
Tyrone: Uh, yeah, and [expletive] the po-po, too. Who those [expletive] blonde white [expletive] think they be, anyhow?
Tom: You’ve got me on that one, Tyrone. Oh, by the way – The Stars and Stripes Forever is a march John Phillip Sousa wrote for the US Marine Band. The National Anthem is named The Star Spangled Banner.
Tyrone: No [expletive]? Wait a minute – ain’t a spangled some kinda dog?
Tom: No, that’s a spaniel. “Star Spangled” just means, well, that the flag is decorated with stars, that’s all. Anyway, The Stars and Stripes Forever doesn’t even have words, and, of course, the National Anthem does.
Tyrone: Yeah, and I always be wonderin’ what the [expletive] them [expletive] words be about – “Jose can you see” and all that [expletive]. Who dat [expletive] Jose be? What a Spanish guy be doin’ in the National Anthem? How come somebody askin’ him a questions? How come all the crackers wanna stand up to a song about askin’ some Spanish guy questions? And who be askin’ the [expletive] questions, anyhow?
Tom: Okay, for starters, the words of the National Anthem are a poem written by Francis Scott Key.
Tyrone: You sayin’ a woman wrote dem words about some Spanish guy named Jose?
Tom: No, Francis Scott Key was a man.
Tyrone: Francis be a girl’s name! He some kinda [expletive]?
Tom: By all accounts, Francis Scott Key was a heterosexual.
Tyrone: Yeah, dat what I mean – he be on the downlow, right?
Tom: No, no, no – “heterosexual” means he’s a guy like you or me – he liked women.
Tyrone: Oh. [Expletive], man, what you got to be usin’ big words like that for, anyhow?
Tom: Sorry. I’ll try to avoid them for the remainder of our colloquy.
Tyrone: Remainder? Man, what dat other word?
Tom: You mean “colloquy?”
Tyrone: You not be getting’ off to such a good start wit dat not usin’ fancy honky words, man!
Tom: Again, I must apologize. My work involves extensive interactions with various members of the intelligentsia and political elites.
Tyrone: Day-um! Dere you goes agin!
Tom: Right, bro – I’ll be careful. So this gentleman, Francis Scott Key, during the War of 1812, was…
Tyrone: The [expletive] war of what? Never heard of it! When dat happen, anyhow?
Tom: Um… in 1812. It lasted until 1815. And in September, 1814, Francis Scott Key was being temporarily held prisoner under a flag of truce suspended through action of war by the British, on a ship anchored near Baltimore.
Tyrone: What the [expletive]? We fought a war with them English people?
Tom: Two, actually. This was the second one.
Tyrone: You mean, we fought wars with that country where Adele and Jesse J and Madonna come from?
Tom: Madonna’s not really English. She just speaks with a British accent in order to appear more intelligent. She’s actually from Bay City, Michigan.
Tyrone: But you do be sayin’, we fought wars with them English people, right?
Tom: Correct. There were a few skirmishes in upstate New York, but the war really got started when we invaded Canada and…
Tyrone: You sayin’ we invaded [expletive] Canada? You be makin’ this [expletive] up, ain’t you?
Tom: No, no, I’m not. The United States of America invaded Canada and what’s more, our troops weren’t very nice about it, either. The burned down the entire city of Toronto, which was called York at the time. So the British decided to retaliate by invading Washington DC and burning it to the ground and…
Tyrone: The [expletive] English invaded Washington DC?
Tom: Oh, yeah – President Madison had to leave in such a hurry, when the British showed up, his dinner was still on the table; the Presidential Mansion was supposed to be hosting a banquet that night, so it was quite a spread, and the British ate it all and drank up most of Madison’s fine wines, too, and then they burned the building down.
Tyrone: They burned down the White House?
Tom: Well, it wasn’t called “The White House” until after the British burned it down, but yes, they did, and they were getting ready to burn down the rest of the city when a huge hurricane came right through the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River…
Tyrone: Oh, man, you sure you not makin’ this [expletive] up?
Tom: No way – you can’t make up [expletive] this [expletive] weird. So the hurricane kicked the British forces’ butts so bad, their generals changed their minds and left to invade Baltimore.
Tyrone: So how did the Spanish guy Jose get mixed up in dat [expletive]?
Tom: There wasn’t any Spanish guy named Jose. The first words of Francis Scott Key’s poem are “Oh,” and “Say,” so the first line is “Oh say, can you see.”
Tyrone: “Oh say?” Who the [expletive] talks like that?
Tom: Two hundred and five years ago, Americans did; and the English, too.
Tyrone: So what the [expletive] this “oh say” [expletive] mean?
Tom: Um… well, today, I suppose it would be something like, “Yo, dude!” Something to get a person’s attention, an interjection, if you will.
Tyrone: Interjection? Didn’t I say watch it with the fancy [expletive] words?
Tom: Sorry. In any case, the idea behind the first line is “Hey there, can you see our flag this morning?”
Tyrone: So who be this dude with a girl’s name from two hundred years ago asking, huh?
Tom: He’s inquiring of a rhetorical interlocutor…
Tyrone: Rhetorical? Inter-what-you-tor? Look, didn’t I tell you…
Tom: Okay, okay, wait – what I mean is, he’s not asking a particular person, see, he’s asking, well… anybody who might be listening.
Tyrone: So this crazy-[expletive] cracker be standing out in the street, sayin’ “Yo, y’all! Anybody see our flag this morning?”
Tom: Yeah, you could put it like that, I guess.
Tyrone: Why? The flag be lost or somethin’?
Tom: Not lost, but if the British had taken Fort McHenry, where the flag was flying, during the night, then it would have been replaced by a Union Jack.
Tyrone: Jack? Who be this Jack dude? How he get in the story?
Tom: The Union Jack is what the British call their flag. During the night, you see, the British were shooting their cannons and rockets at the fort that blocked their way to Baltimore, and if the Americans gave up or got over-run by British troops or basically, lost the fort, then the American flag would be replaced with the British one, and that’s what the person Francis Scott Key is asking would see.
Tyrone: Did the British take over the fort?
Tom: No, they didn’t.
Tyrone: Was it because of the hail storm?
Tom: Hail storm?
Tyrone: The next part say something about proud hail or something like that.
Tom: Oh, oh, yeah, I know what you’re talking about now – “What so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming,” right?
Tyrone: Something like that. You said a hurricane, so I thought, maybe it was a hail storm, see?
Tom: I understand, but the word “hail” back then, it meant to call out to someone.
Tyrone: Who he be callin’ out to?
Tom: Well, the flag, actually. Not just him, but everybody in Baltimore.
Tyrone: You mean, everybody in Baltimore be yelling at the flag over the fort?
Tom: Uh… yeah, sort of. What Francis Scott Key meant there was, “that flag that we were so proud to cheer for as the sun went down yesterday.” So as the sun set, everybody in Baltimore was cheering for the flag over that fort.
Tyrone: What they be cheering?
Tom: Well, that wasn’t actually recorded, but it was probably something like “Huzzah, huzzah!”
Tyrone: Huzzah, huzzah? What the [expletive] kind of [expletive] cheer be that [expletive]?
Tom: That’s just the way people spoke English a couple of centuries ago – some of the words we still understand, but others they used, such as “huzzah,” are today considered archaic.
Tyrone: Archaic? What the [expletive]! Didn’t I tell you…
Tom: Sorry, sorry. What I mean is, some of the words are really old and nobody uses them anymore, except sometimes, like in the words to The Star Spangled Banner. So the song is about this situation, see, where the American flag is flying over the fort protecting Baltimore from the British, and the people there and Mr. Key on the British ship where he was being held prisoner, too, see that flag when the sun sets. Then there’s this huge battle with bombs blowing up in the air over the fort and rockets lighting up the sky with glaring red streaks, and the people are watching, see, when those flashes of light happen, to see if the flag is still there. That’s what the next four lines are about.
Tyrone: Okay, so what sheep nuts got to do with it?
Tom: Sheep nuts?
Tyrone: Dat part of de song, dey singin’ about “ram parts,” ain’t they?
Tom: “Ramparts” is another one of those old words hardly anybody uses anymore. It means the walls of the fort. “Over ramparts we watched,” that means Key and the people of Baltimore were watching to see the American flag flying over the walls of the fort during night when the artillery and rockets lit up the sky and “gave proof, through the night, that our flag was still there.”
Tyrone: Okay, so let me see if I get what you be tellin’ me: then the song ends with this Key dude asking anybody who’s listening if that flag still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Tom: Exactly! You got it!
Tyrone: Now that I know what the [expletive] all that [expletive] is about, it’s kinda, I donno, not pretty, like some poem you gotta read in school, but it kinda makes you sad and happy and excited at the same time.
Tom: Yeah, that’s what it’s supposed to do.
Tyrone: So that’s why everybody be standing up for it before the basketball game?
Tom: Correct. But there’s more to the story, and you’re entitled to know that, too.
Tyrone: More? And what that be?
Tom: The music. Francis Scott Key didn’t realize it when he wrote the poem, but the words fit perfectly with a song that practically everyone at the time knew.
Tyrone: What do you mean, fit?
Tom: It’s like, um… how to explain this… it’s like, when Al Yankovik takes a song everybody knows…
Tyrone: Al who?
Tom: Right. Hmph. Okay, when Francis Scott Key wrote that poem, there was a dirty English drinking tune that was the theme song for a bunch of guys who would get together and overeat and drink lots of beer and have some whores come and visit them while they were doing it.
Tyrone: Oh, yeah, sure – like when me and my homies throw a Super Bowl party.
Tom: Very much so, I’m sure. And this is the song they would sing:
To Anacreon, in Heaven in glee
A few sons of the Muse did send a petition
That he their inspirer and patron would be.
Then the answer arrived from the jolly old Grecian:
“Voice, viol and flute, no longer be mute,
“I’ll lend you my name, and inspire you, to boot;
“And besides, I’ll instruct ye, like me, to entwine
“The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’ vine.”
Tyrone: What the [expletive] was that [expletive]? You be singin’ the National Anthem with different words! Who be this Anna Creeon? She be one of the ho’s?
Tom: Explaining who Anacreon was would require a lot of those long words you don’t like, so let’s just say we as a Greek guy who lived back in the days when they threw toga parties in real togas and he liked to drink, overeat, and do whores with his pals, just like you do at a Super Bowl party, minus the togas. That stuff about Venus and Bacchus were classical Greek references to sex and drinking, you see. The point is, in 1814, everybody knew that song I just sang for you and it didn’t dawn on Francis Scott Key when he wrote his poem that it fit exactly over the melody of the Anacreonic Anthem, which is the name of that other song which sounds just like The Star Spangled Banner. When the British politely released him after the Battle of Baltimore, Key rushed into print with his poem, which became an immediate hit, so to speak, because two hundred years ago, poetry was hot stuff, although today not so much, I know. And before he realized what he had done, everyone was singing the words of his poem to the tune of the naughty ditty.
Tyrone: Hold it! You said poetry was hot?
Tom: My good man, two hundred years ago, well written poetry could get a guy laid.
Tyrone: No [expletive]?
Tom: Really good poems could even make a guy rich and famous.
Tyrone: Poetry? Man, that is some really [expletive] gay [expletive] right there.
Tom: From our point of view today, it’s easy to see why you might think that, yes.
Tyrone: So the song they be singing out there on the basketball court with the Army and Navy guys…
Tom: The Color Guard.
Tyrone: Yeah, them dudes, and everybody be bowin’ dey heads down and puttin’ dey hand on dey chests and all the time, the song be that dirty English drinkin’ song about doin’ shots and stuffin’ yo face and feelin’ up ho’s and havin’ some [expletive].
Tom: Uh-huh. And there’s more.
Tom: That Francis Scott Key guy – he was a slave owner.
Tyrone: I knew it! I knew you was gonna say that! I just knew it!
Tyrone: ‘Cause this be [expletive] America, that’s why! What else could I [expletive] expect?
Tom: Um… yeah, and well, it gets worse, actually.
Tyrone: Worse? You just [expletive] told me the man what wrote our National Anthem owned slaves! How the [expletive] can it be worse?
Tom: A fellow named Roger B. Taney married Francis Scott Key’s sister, and later on, Key used his influence as a successful lawyer and famous American to get Taney appointed to the US Supreme Court.
Tom: So in 1857, when Roger B. Tany was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he wrote the Dred Scott Decision, in which Taney declared that Negroes aren’t human beings and therefore have no rights under the Constitution.
Tyrone: What the [expletive]? You tellin’ me the brother-in-law of the man who wrote the National Anthem ran the [expletive] Supreme Court and he said we black folks be animals?
Tom: Essentially, yes.
Tyrone: And this Francis Scott Key dude was okay with that?
Tom: More than okay. He thought it was brilliant legal reasoning.
Tyrone: So the cracker who wrote the National Anthem was a racist slave owner who thought black people ain’t human, and the music for the National Anthem is a dirty English song about drinkin’ and [expletive]?
Tom: Like they say, “Only in America could this be true.”
Tyrone: Alright then, Mr. Collins. Thank you very much. I think maybe you be the first honest honky I ever talked to.
Tom: That certainly wouldn’t be surprising. So, have I helped you make up your mind about what you’re going to do?
Tyrone: Yeah, you have. I not gonna be goin’ on that basketball court while they plays that dere National Anthem lessen the owners of my [expletive] basketball club [expletive] double my [expletive] salary!
Tom: As the history books tell us the Black Panthers used to say, Tyrone – right on!
Tyrone: Yeah! And from here on out, you be my [expletive], Tom Collins, any time I need advice ’bout anything important!
Tom: I’m your wigger?
Tyrone: That’s right – you be my white [expletive].
Tom: Yo, Tyrone, that cool, but next time, you make sure you bring your wigger some money.
Tyrone: Solid, my wigger, solid.
Tom: Later, my [expletive]!
Tyrone: Yo, later!