Q. A college with which I am affiliated discovered that its school song was written for a blackface minstrel show in the 1900s. Although the lyrics are innocuous, the school banned the song from this year's graduation and formed a group to discuss its future use, part of a campaign to make students aware of things they take for granted. Is it unethical to sing the song? – Julia DeIuliis, Philadelphia
Sing out – full-throated, clear-conscienced. I would be reluctant to intone words that might wound, particularly if they wound my fellow students, particularly at graduation, an event they should enjoy unambivalently. (Save for the mounting terror of repaying their massive student debt.) But if, as you note, the lyrics of this song are benign (“Hail to thee … ” and the like), then dubious origins need not force the college to abjure it. “Oh! Susanna,” the first song for which Stephen Foster received a cash payment (two crisp $50 bills), the one that started his career, was first performed in minstrel shows, but that is no reason to purge it from the summer-camp repertory.
Much in our culture has evolved beyond its origins. To shake hands once demonstrated that you did not hold a sword, but to extend your hand today does not imply that you suspect another is armed.
The school's response is not only ethical but also admirable. It did what a college should: cultivate in its students an alertness to the historical origins and cultural implications of things around them.
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