Some of the most iconic moments in entertainment history include various renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner. In these moments, issues that divide melt into ties that bind as spectators find themselves united in the words “O Say can you see!” However, on July 4th, 2021, as the nation celebrated its 245th birthday, the headline performance of PBS’ Capitol 4th Celebration instead ended with a racially divisive snub to the nation’s national anthem as it was replaced by Vanessa Williams’ rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” colloquially known as The Black National Anthem.
After a year of racially charged rioting from the death of George Floyd, the ongoing fight in our education system over Critical Race Theory, the federal government recognizing Juneteenth as an official holiday, and the athlete Gwen Berry snubbing the national anthem at the Olympic Trials in Oregon last week, Williams’ performance concludes one of the most racially divisive years in the nation’s recent history.
Consider Whitney Houston’s rendition at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 for a stark comparison. At a time when the nation had just entered the Persian Gulf War, the Grammy award winner gave one of the most beloved performances of the National Anthem in American history. There was no pomp in her performance or long, drawn-out belting of notes that stars’ sometimes employ to showboat their talent, but rather an angelic voice and beaming smile as she was surrounded by service men from the various branches of our military and a thunderous crowd waving tens of thousands of American flags. She performed in a white jump suit and hairband, perfectly encapsulating the style of the early 1990s. At the end of the performance, F15’s flew over the stadium unable to drown out the deafening applause from the stadium. This performance was so iconic, it was later released as a single after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, because everyone was in agreement that in that moment, Whitney unified the country.
Thirty years later, against a backdrop of riots, controversial education and new federal holidays that all have racial underpinnings, enter Vanessa Williams.
While she did not get the benefit of singing in the middle of Tampa Stadium surrounded by thousands of people like Whitney did, there was not even an effort given to exude the slightest bit of patriotism or unity by Williams and her six back-up singers. It’s almost as if this performance was yet another drop in the bucket to divide a country already suffering division. There was massive social media backlash to this decision before the performance even began.
Dressed in a puffy blue robe covering a glistening red dress and gaudy diamond earrings, Williams was surrounded by her ensemble wearing white outfits with red belts, making herself the spectacle as opposed to the holiday she was supposed to be celebrating. It also ought to be noted that a physical American flag was absent from the stage. The lingering smoke from the fireworks above served as a symbol of the clouded vision that America represents to Williams and her woke partners at PBS – America is a nation defined by systemic racism and police brutality of black people.
Admittedly, the national anthem was sung by Renée Fleming to open the PBS festivities. However, July 4th is a special celebration because it’s the last performance that is remembered. Why? The backdrop of fireworks is emblematic of the country’s founding and its anthem. As people sing and reflect on the words “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night, that our flag was still there”, they are gazing back onto something that has already been completed. America won its independence from Great Britain. It was finished.
The federalization of Juneteenth was met with overwhelming bipartisan support and it would make sense for it to have a song that also symbolizes its meaning. Perhaps that will be “Lift Every Voice and Sing” but only time will tell. What is clear is that Williams’ amalgamation of Independence Day and Juneteenth was an historically inaccurate representation of America’s founding.
Vanessa indicated what she wanted to convey with this performance when she told the Associated Press – “It’s a celebration of the wonderful opportunity that we now have to celebrate Juneteenth.” This message was supported by another uncomfortable fact – the stage was a racially myopic assembly in which Williams dedicated her performance to her ancestors, not mentioning independence or reflecting on the prices paid by brave men and women who’ve protected our country since its founding.
What does Independence Day celebrate? Is it being replaced by Juneteenth? Are the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War and America’s birth as the freest nation in global history now being questioned by woke culture? Does Vanessa Williams understand America’s racial history or does she employ the method of eisegesis as she reflects on its past problems?
Where Whitney Houston was surrounded by all races, Vanessa Williams and her singers presented the image of one race, still fighting to obtain something the country has already guaranteed to all equally and without reservation. Rather, the antithesis was implied for the world to see as PBS signed off its divisive celebration in what may go down as one of the most controversial performances in American history.
The country does not need to replace Independence Day with Juneteenth. July 4th celebrations do not require “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The holiday already serves as a day in which the world recognizes that genuine freedom and the gift of self-governance are not only possible but set a standard to which the rest of the world aspires. This is seen clearly when fireworks shoot into the sky as citizens sing “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Vanessa Williams may want to consult other performances and take notes particularly from Whitney Houston, an artist whose song has come to serve a symbol for American exceptionalism, authentic patriotism and beautiful unity in times of American trial.