Practice Civil Disobedience: Say “Good Night” to “My Old Kentucky Home”
Anyone who has attended a public gathering in the state of Kentucky has likely experienced a ritual of outlandish patriotism, the communal singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” It’s quite striking to observe the locals standing, tears in eyes, fervently intoning the strains of the Kentucky anthem, which was (ironically) written by a northerner, Stevens Collins Foster in 1850. Such singing doesn’t just take place at the Kentucky Derby either. It takes place before UK football and basketball games, movies at the Kentucky Theatre, and even at churches. I believe, however, that Kentucky must repudiate the communal celebration of this song if it is ever going to begin a process of racial conciliation that needs to take place.
Kentucky’s Department for Libraries and Archives provides the best survey of the checkered history associated with the Kentucky state song. As the story goes, Foster wrote the song after being enamored with the somewhat idealized portrait of Kentucky Slavery in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first line of Foster’s song is as follows: “The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home; ’tis summer, the darkies are gay.” The song proceeds to develop as an apology for the “Hard Himes” that come “a-knockin’ at the door” (i.e. the knock all slaved dreaded, when their masters came to sell them away from their families”).
Let’s be honest. It’s unacceptable that Kentuckians publically celebrate a song so thoroughly spun from our unfortunate history of oppression. It’s even more appalling to learn that Kentuckians sung about the “gay darkies” all the way until 1986, when a group of visiting Japanese students went before the state legislature and demanded the the lyrics be changed to, “’tis the summer, and the people are gay.”
Whether Kentuckians sing the original or euphamized lyrics is irrelevant. Kentuckians must take a stand and discontinue the painful heritage that informs “My Old Kentucky Home.” Join me in formal protest. Whenever the song is sung at a public event, sit down and do not partake in such an ill-advised rendition of hometown pride.