Old Times There are Not Forgotten

The story yesterday about Good Humor hiring The RZA to write a new jingle to replace “Turkey in the Straw,” which has racist lyrics, reminded me of something that happened in middle school.

When I was in 8th grade—or maybe 7th, but I think 8th—this would have been ’92 or ’93—the middle school band prepared several pieces for our twice-yearly concert. One of the selections was a medley that included Dixie. The song, if you’re not familiar, is sort of—well, no, it is—an anthem to the antebellum south. It wistfully longs for the old days. Its least objectionable lines include “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie.” You’re welcome to look up other versions that specifically call for southerners to take up arms against the United States.

A week or so before the concert, word got out that “Dixie” was part of the medley the band was going to be performing, and a few parents and teachers complained. At twelve or thirteen, I really didn’t get it. It was just one song in a medley, and we weren’t going to be singing it, just playing the tune. Plus, we’d worked hard to prepare the piece. Without it we’d have a hole in the program. But instructions came down that we shouldn’t play the song, so it was dropped.

I remember at the time really not getting it. Now, of course, I do. But then, we were in the era (still are, probably) when we were taught that the American Civil War had a complex series of causes only partially rooted in slavery. I really can say that I’ve honestly never understood “southern pride.” I’ve always found it shameful. And yet, I was surrounded by it, and here and there, it soaked in. “Dixie” was just a song! You can’t erase history! Why not be proud of your heritage? And so on.

I can see, now, how this event could have been an opportunity for the school to teach us how to move forward. They could have gone through the lyrics of the song and said, “See how these words are meant to paint the slaveholding era as the ‘good old days?’” We could have had discussions about how you can be proud of your heritage while still admitting the truth of what happened in the past. There’s pride in knowing your society has improved, too. A town that built itself on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson would do well to be able to honestly say, “Here are the ideals we believe in. Here’s how we haven’t always lived up to them, here’s how we’ve moved closer to them, and here’s what we still have to do.”

You don’t heal by singing “Look away! Look away!”