Tradition gone bad

Yesterday at a family gathering, people were flipping through a songbook and began to sing “Sleep, Kentucky Babe.”

Various people were dismayed by various parts of the song—some by the second verse, which threatens the wakeful child with being snatched by the bogeyman, but mostly by the 1890s minstrel-show feel of the language.

’Skeeters am a hummin’ on de honeysuckle vine,—
Sleep, Kentucky Babe!
Sandman am a comin’ to dis little coon of mine,—
Sleep, Kentucky Babe!
Silv’ry moon am shinin’ in de heabens up above,
Bobolink am pinin’ fo’ his little lady love:
Yo’ is mighty lucky,
Babe of old Kentucky,—
Close yo’ eyes in sleep.

The version in our songbook was considerably cleaned up from the original, but still pretty bad. I understand people’s attachment to songs from their childhood, especially ones they learned from their parents.  But does it really fix things to change “Lay yo’ kinky, woolly head on yo’ mammy’s breast” to “Lay your little curly head on your mama’s breast”?

A similarly awkward piece of my childhood is the book “Little Black Sambo.” White people love to complain that this cherished piece of their childhood has been taken away by political correctness.

It seems likely that Helen Bannerman’s original 1899 book was about a Tamil or South Indian child, since she traveled in India (and since tigers live there). But the names “black Sambo,” “black Mumbo,” and “black Jumbo,” combined with the illustrations, seem more American than Tamil:

sambo's family

The actual story has nothing wrong with it; it’s essentially about dealing with bullies. A young boy with a fine new outfit goes for a walk. He meets a series of tigers that want to eat him, but he bribes each of them with a piece of his clothing and praises their fancy clothes. The vain tigers argue about who is the grandest tiger in the jungle, and their fight becomes so heated that they melt into a puddle of butter. The boy collects his clothes and the butter, and when he goes home his mother makes pancakes.

Various modern authors have tried to rehabilitate the story—one returns it to India, while another sets it in the American South. But after 115 years as “Little Black Sambo” with illustrations like the above, there’s really no going back.

American Morris dancers find it easy to see that English Morris dancers should not wear blackface, but English dancers find this harder to see and tend to bring up explanations about it representing chimney sweeps or coal miners. To someone more removed from the tradition, it’s pretty clear that when your costume offends lots of people, you should change it rather than insisting they’re wrong to be offended. Be pragmatic.

I thought about this kind of thing a lot when Jeff and I were considering adopting a child from foster care. Our child could have been from any race, and I started to realize how few of the books, stories, songs, movies, etc. from my childhood showed children of color in any positive way. Now that we have a white child, I could delay thinking about it until she’s older, raising her on the same mostly white media I loved. I could try to salvage the beautiful melody of “Kentucky Babe” or the plotline of “Sambo.”

But what happens if she grows up to have a partner of a different race and multiracial children? Do I want to pass the buck to her, letting her weed out the bad old material at the same time as she’s struggling to find positive material for her children?

I’d rather Lily not have to make that editorial decision. She can encounter “Sambo” and “Kentucky Babe” when she’s older, maybe on Wikipedia. But by then they won’t have the patina of something she learned from her parents. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of good stories and songs for white children. It’s not like we have no choice but to recycle 1890s-era racism.

I love tradition. I love songs. I love books. But no song, book, or story is worth perpetuating something that’s hurtful to so many people.

(I was feeling very satisfied about this post until I remembered that I can’t imagine raising kids without watching Mary Martin in Peter Pan, despite its ludicrous depiction of American Indians. The version coming out next month may be slightly less ludicrous. I’m hoping I’ve thought of a good solution within a few years.)

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