Friday, February 24, 2006

Rewriting History -- Political Correctness or Whitewash?

On February 23, in the blog entry here "Black History in America - the Peculiar Institution," I mentioned the fact that Kentucky's state song, "My Old Kentucky Home," had its lyrics changed. Stephen Foster, who wrote the song before the Civil War, original wrote a line, "The darkies roll on the little cabin floor,..." At this website, you can see the lyrics as they exist now in the official version that is sung each year at the Kentucky Derby, changed to "They young folks roll on the little cabin floor,..."

The reason given for the change made in the state legislature, was that the original lyrics, written during the days when slavery was legal and common in the Commonwealth, now seemed very racist. That is certainly true. And the song is a particularly beautiful one. Not many state songs are as beautiful as "My Old Kentucky Home." Stephen Foster was a gifted songwriter, with both an ear for melody and for lyrics that would stay with the listener. He wrote more big hits that remained in the American songbook than perhaps any other songwriter until the guys that wrote for musical movies and now, write for musical videos.

But I am troubled by the removal of evidence of our racist past. While it discomforts me, and probably offends others more deeply than it does me, if we remove it completely, we whitewash away the evidence of where we have been. Each year, some schoolboard or library is asked to remove Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn from the shelves or classroom, because it uses "nigger" in the text. The folks who ask sadly miss the point that Samuel Clemens, writing at a time when too many whites used that terrible epithet freely, wrote in opposition to the attitude behind it. The white adults in the book who claim to be upright and good are depicted as evil, cowardly and grasping. The only noble adult in the book is the runaway slave, Jim, one of the main targets of that ugly word. The crux of the story is when Huck, against all his teaching and upbringing, against the culture in which he was raised, decides to be a "bad" boy, and help Jim escape. He reckons he'll go to Hell, but that's just how it will have to be. He just can't bring himself to turn against Jim. Far from being a book putting down people of color, Huckleberry Finn is a merciless indictment of the "Christian" society that could bind a human being into slavery, and sell him away from wife and children, then go to church and congratulate itself on being better than those next door.

To remove the book, to remove the words, to remove the evidence of our racism, is to do a hurt to our current selves and our future as well. If we edit the song, to avoid being racist in the here and now, we must be certain to retain the evidence of the edit and the original.

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