November 15, 2005

"We used to sing that song when I was in school during the '50s"





"We used to sing that song when I was in school during the '50s”


These are the words of the deranged spokes person for the Berkley, Michigan School district wherein a predominantly white school planned to have a folk song program wherein the children performing will sing folk songs. Sounds innocent enough until it is realized one of the songs is not a folk song at all, in fact it is a song with historical reference to the plight of Black men and women in the south during the times in which we were enslaved in America. That song is “Pick a Bale of Cotton”. This song comes from the many songs that were once referred to and is cataloged in the Library of Congress as “Negro Work Songs”.

Gregory Montgomery the father of 11 year old China, who attends school in the Berkley School District, complained to school officials about the use of this song in its folk song program, when the school failed to act he pulled his daughter from the program that would have her sing a song about “Picking Cotton”

This is not the first time there has been controversy with this song and its use in the classroom or in a school. Back in 2003 Dana Williams while bathing her six year old son was taking aback by him singing this song; like any parent would she asked where he learned it and her son replied “we sing it in music class”. Dana Williams then asked her son, "Did your teacher tell you about who picked cotton or what that was like?" to which he replied Uh-uh. Ms. Williams later found out that this song and the movements were taught to the children during Black History month.

Ms Williams was dumbfounded and appalled that in 2003 a teacher would introduce a song rooted in our enslavement to children without providing some context to explain its history or significance. Mr. Montgomery found it mind boggling that in 2005 white folk, (my word not his, he used the word people) would not see how sensitive an issue our enslavement and picking cotton is. I am neither dumbfounded nor is my mind boggled by the use of this song, the lack of contextual understanding provided with this song nor am I a bit surprised that the response from white folk is one of “I don’t understand what the big issue is.:

Ms. Williams went on to contextualize the song for her son while Mr. Montgomery has been successful in having the song removed from his daughter’s schools program. But like you, I am sure in some school, in some city in this nation right now children are being taught and singing this song without any appreciation from where this song came or its use and purpose by our ancestors who used this song and songs like it to get through the day while enslaved to do work for racist and other wise lazy white folk that to this day continue to be one of the many sources of Americas Accumulated Capital.

2 Comments:

At 12:45 AM, Blogger NmagiNATE said...

I learned the very song In Music Class. Fortunately, when it came time for Black History Month, in certain grades I had Black teachers who knew better.

"Pick A Bale Of Cotton" was indeed presented, taught as an innocuous "folk song" by the old gray-haired, White female music teacher in my rural and significantly mixed grade school (perhaps 60/40, Black/White either way, don't remember).

BTW, thanks for the story and the blog. The song really is a metaphor revealing and telling about the unquestioned practices that get passed along by way of "tradition." No doubt, the song is listed as "folk songs" in any number of sing-along music books for kids.

 
At 8:10 PM, Blogger Scott said...

I always thought it was a protest song. Allthat jumping and turning around sounds like a classic work slow down to me.

-- glad you guys are back I hope you were just offline for a rest and not any personal tradegy.

 

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