No exceptions when battling insulting language

April 11, 2014 

For as long as I can remember, I have sung in a choir. I sang all through school, and when the military moved our family, the first thing I did when I got to a new town was to find a new group to sing with.

My fear of flying objects kept me away from sports, so singing in a choir was the closest I ever got to being on a team.

Up until a few weeks ago, I could have told you that not only is choir a no-contact sport, it is also devoid of conflict, but today that statement would not be true.

The American songbook is the theme for an upcoming concert, and included in that songbook is Stephen Foster’s song, “Oh! Susanna.”

Now, no matter what generation you call your own, or what region of the country you hail from, “Oh! Susanna” was undoubtedly there. And she’s a real toe-tapper.

“Oh! Susanna” is a minstrel song first published in 1848, and it originally had the N-word in it. You probably didn’t sing that version. They’ve long since taken that word out, but there is still an “Oh! Susanna” in circulation with the word “darkie” in it, and that, in the name of “telling it like it was” is the version my choir is singing.

And herein lies the problem: I can’t. I won’t.

Some argue we should face our past, and apparently sing it, even if it is shameful. They argue that to study the truth of a culture is to sing the good, the bad and the ugly, and it’s okay to sing a song if you explain or contextualize it for an audience: Here is a racist song from the past. We will sing it well. You will clap. Look how far we’ve come.

Letters of protest were written by me and others asking that at the very least, the word “darkie” be expunged from the text. But at the time of this writing, “Oh! Susanna” is still on the program with no changes.

At first I wondered what defect was in me that made it impossible for my lips to move when the music began, and then I remembered the lesson I got growing up, almost on a daily basis, on the power of words.

My sister has Williams Syndrome. She is 11 months older than me. When we were young, there was nothing special about Special Education, so my parents thought it best to keep my sister and me together in the same classroom.

Every year meant a different school, a hope for a better fit. We had quite an ecumenical education, but no matter what kind of school — public, private, religious or otherwise — all the schools had one thing in common: mean kids.

I wish I could say that hearing, “Retard” and “Retard’s sister” got old and lost power; that we grew numb and calloused to the sound of it whispered, shouted, passed in a note — but I can’t. The word always hurt. Still does.

And when a kid got caught saying it, and the teacher dragged him over by the ear to apologize, we were often told, “It was a joke. Can’t you take a joke?”

All those words, whether they begin with an “r”, “n”, “f” or a “d” translate into one thing: less than.

I guess I’m what you’d call “politically correct,” a term that has now become pejorative and synonymous with “can’t take a joke.”

The truth is that minstrel shows were once considered hilarious. Yes, they are a part of our American story, but I believe bringing back those images, even in a song, even with the noblest of truth-telling intentions does more harm than good.

Why resurrect that old archetype? Minstrel shows lived to do the dirty work of racists and today they belong buried in footnotes.

I could back out of this choir concert, but I want to sing with my team. After all, I’ve practiced all season.

My compromise: During the concert, when “Oh! Susanna” is sung, my protest will be silence. It might be the longest three minutes of my life, but I stand in honor of those who endured those words, and those who fought against them.

“Hell, no! Susanna,” is what I’ll be thinking. Hell. No.

Karen Irwin of Tacoma teaches writing at Clover Park Technical College. Email her at irwinkd@yahoo.com.

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