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Sunday, November 17, 2019

We've been working on "I've Been Working on the Railroad"

Friends have been posting this call, by Katya Ermolaeva, for songs with a history in minstrel performance not to be sung in kids' music classes.

I disagree with that call.

The racism in our folk music heritage is real. But I'm not sure the song's origin in racism renders the process that removed its racism irrelevant -- in this case, by changing the lyrics used in racist versions of the song, and framing the song differently.

Because the creative work that people do to remove racism from our cultural and political heritage is also real. It's as real as the racism that is in that heritage in the first place.

The US flag meant family separation, rape, and murder for people of color when it was first created, and still means imperialist violence for people today; but it can be a very real symbol of freedom.

Same with the national anthem; when I sing it, I'm singing to Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Fred Hampton, Daniel Ellsburg, Chelsea Manning, Sally Hemmings, Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Can't I sing "I've Been Working on the Railroad" in that spirit too?

Aren't I part of the creative labor that creates that performance?

Isn't my contribution valid, my vision of appreciating the unpaid labor of others, of mourning their pain, of celebrating their workplace humor and nicknames for machinery (both hated and loved), and of reclaiming this twisted remnant of their lives for them?

Another question: is there really no place for pieces of history that were wrong about things in our classrooms? Isn't it important to read the original draft of the Constitution, with its enshrining of the power of white male landowners, in order to understand its part in oppression? Shouldn't we study expression that was wrong, as well as expression that was right?

Not that any creative work is entirely one or the other. I think sometimes when people rule works of art, folk art or otherwise, as no longer enjoyable, they fall prey to an illusion -- promoted by capitalism's discovery that art sells best under this illusion -- of thinking art has a single creator and a single true inherent purpose.

But all art is the contribution of many intentions and efforts, and your part in it, as a viewer or singer, is part of its creation.

I do want to take the concerns that Dr. Ermolaeva is speaking to seriously, at the same time as I balk at her approach. Should the ability of children to understand the complex history of art be a requirement before they experience it creatively? Should I keep my kids away from Jewish songs until they can explain Jewish persecution and Palestinian dispossession?

I think, as with concerns about cultural appropriation, that much of the concern comes from the notion of people somewhat mindlessly using, for their casual entertainment, something which deserves respect. I do see how careless use of songs with partial origins in racist minstrel performance just repeats the racism of the past, in more sugary form. And, I think that concern mixes in complex ways with the reality that each teacher, and each singer, creates a work of art anew through performance.

But I'm wary of responding to children's creative performance with the impulse to silence and cite history as being trampled by the children. Is that impulse really about a problem with the children and what they are creating when they sing a song that has unclear origins, was partially rewritten by racists, and then rewritten by anti-racists?

Or is this debate about adults, and we should leave kids' performance out of it?

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" may have been used by racists. But it doesn't belong to racists. Their racism doesn't get to live, rent-free, in our minds or in our classrooms. History is made by the people! Here we are, with our Huckleberry Finns, our Othellos, our Eddie Murphy: Raws, our Manhattans, and our "I've Been Working on the Railroad"s.

What are we going to do with them?

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