(BP): Transmutation of Negro Spiritual – Weekly Journal 11

Earlier this month I came across an interesting article which I think is  significant in connection with my research topic. The New York Times article “How a Slave Spiritual Became English Rugby’s Anthem” by Andrew Keh discusses the transmutation of the slave spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” into English Rugby’s anthem. Keh examines how the song’s original meaning has been transformed along with the moral and social implications of such a change. Although the song was originally a musical response to the traumatic nature of Chattel slavery, Keh states that the “across the Atlantic, the song has developed a parallel existence, unchanged in form but utterly different in function.” According to English Rugby fans, the song serves as a sort of drinking chant which is used to hype up the crowd. Originally sung during the England v. Ireland game in March of 1988, newspapers “tied its emergence to the race of Chris Oti, who was the first black player to represent England’s rugby team in almost a century, and who played a starring role in that game.” Several of the fans seem to recognize the racist connotation, when used in that way, yet still  remain flippant. Keh quotes Dudley Wood, a former secretary of the Rugby Football Union who acknowledges its a “delicate situation”, but falls back on the notion that “we poor English don’t really have the songs to sing.” Although Wood’s statement is meant to be a kind of self-deprecation in terms of lack of “culture” or songs to sing, its playful nature seems to inspire a kind of endearing self-victimization.

This kind of self-victimization by the dominant social majority in order to justify their shortcomings and prejudice can be seen throughout history time and time again. In instances such as the Washington Redskins name controversy, racist halloween costumes, or racist-themed parties, the perpetrators often offer up assurances that such disregard is meant in either respect, jest, or is due to youthful ignorance. In many of these circumstances there is a general sense of “adoption”, of taking on or satirizing the traits and characteristics of a specific, marginalized group and using them as a means of entertainment or hilarity. In each occasion, although there may not be desire to belittle or degrade a certain minority for explicitly racist reasons – unfortunately there often is – there is an underlying theme of different being lesser. The “cool” characteristics and the “redeeming qualities” of the marginalized minority – their music, their smarts, their swag, their culture – alongside their historical trials and tribulations are deemed equally inconsequential and are presented as no more than comedic relief for the dominant majority. The problem here goes deeper than painted faces or drunken bawds, it is the unconscious, or conscious, apathy towards the deep-seated history of others’ and the fact that is continuously taken lightly. In the words of one of the rugby fans Keh quotes, “slightly racist but in the best possible taste.” Although “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has been adopted by the English Rugby community and has acquired new meaning altogether, to take the song and leave the history is to engage in a type of historical erasure. Although Keh quotes an English sociologist University director who “suspect[s] the vast majority of people singing it have no idea where it came from, or even that it’s American at all, or that it has a black American heritage,” another University of Michigan Professor finds there is still a “troubling”  sense of “historical amnesia.” I think it is interesting to consider inspiration v. exploitation and comedy v. parody, especially in situations where there is a greater threat of miscommunication.

SOURCES:

  • Andrew Keh: “How a Slave Spiritual” – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/07/sports/rugby-swing-low-sweet-chariot.html?_r=0
  • Redskins Controversy – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_Redskins_name_controversy
  • Racist Halloween Costumes – http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/09/27/offensive-halloween-costumes_n_12222350.html
  • Racist Themed Parties –
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