Is this "blessing" offensive and racist?
October 24, 2011 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Is my in-laws' blessing as offensive as I think it is?

My in-laws sing a blessing at holiday gatherings that's based on the Johnny Appleseed song, substituting "Peasle tree" for "apple seed" in the last line. On it's face, a little weird, but not objectionable. Not, that is, until I finally got someone to explain the significance of the peasle tree.

The story is that a paternal grandfather found a record of a sermon from the early 20th century. (NSFW Jim Crow racial caricatures) This sermon was purported to have been given by an uneducated African-American preacher who let his Bible fall open at random to a verse, and preached extemporaneously. The verse contained the word "psaltery," which he mispronounced as "peasle tree" and proceeded to build a sermon on this mythical "tree."

The grandfather thought this record was so hilarious that it became a family joke, and eventually he named the family's vacation home "Peasle tree," and eventually "peasle tree" was substituted into the Johnny Appleseed song, and the "Peasle Tree" song became a tradition for the family to sing before meals. So now every time there's a family gathering, the neices and nephews are asked to sing the "Peasle Tree" song before the meal, and everyone is expected to join hands and sing along. (I don't think the kids know the history of the song.)

Am I out of line to be completely offended by this practice? If so, how do I handle this? I don't want my kid singing this crap, even if I am being overly sensitive. The holidays are fast approaching, and short of complete family avoidance, I am at a loss.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (53 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I personally wouldn't draw the line at the song, because it seems so attenuated from the original offensiveness that it's not actually teaching your kids anything. When the kids are older I might explain it to them. For now, I think you'd be better off spending your energy affirmatively teaching your kids your moral values, instead of doing it by pointing out possible offensiveness. If your in-laws are explicitly racist in other ways, that's another matter.
posted by yarly at 8:48 AM on October 24, 2011 [21 favorites]

I guess I wouldn't be that offended by this practice alone. Do your in-laws have other racial tics? If not, I'm not sure it's the hill to die on. Plenty of things become family in-jokes that no longer retain their original meanings or symbolism. My husband's family have lots of family catchphrases (some from the Burt and I records) that might seem patronizing or derogatory to an outsider.
And if this has been entrenched in your in-laws' family folklore for so long, you might have a really hard time rooting it out. Surely there are other things to worry about?
posted by Ideefixe at 8:51 AM on October 24, 2011

Mispronunciation humor is funny to some people. You are the one seeing skin color where you're supposed to be seeing "country Baptist preacher." This is definitely not a ritualized hating of other races.
posted by michaelh at 8:52 AM on October 24, 2011 [31 favorites]

Talk to your spouse about it first. It may be the case that he or she hasn't really thought through the offensiveness, or even that your spouse will be sensitive to your feelings even though it doesn't really offend them. You want your spouse on your side about this, even if you have a _really_ good relationship with your in-laws. You just do.

To be honest, I'm personally of mixed minds about how offensive this is. I see your point, but I'm not sure it's the hill I'd die on. I think I'd use this to teach them the lesson about how people we love can sometimes have prejudices or use language that is not appropriate. I would wait until they are an appropriate age, and -- again -- involve your spouse in this lesson if at all possible.
posted by gauche at 8:53 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're wrong to be offended.

But as you navigate this sticky situation you'll have to keep in mind that you are challenging a family's dear tradition that, apparently, is seen as light-hearted fun family bonding by everyone but you.

I don't know what you could do about it that wouldn't cause some one a lot of stress. You, or them, or more likely everyone.

I haven't met the family in question, but, based on your description, an outcome where the family ruminates and decides to change their (hand-holding!) blessing song out of respect for civil rights and African-American culture and history seems unlikely. I can only picture myself trying to explain to my grandfather why some things he says are culturally insensitive, and in that picture he just laughs and writes me off as a young person.

Good luck, you are in a somewhat yucky place.
posted by TheRedArmy at 8:53 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you offended because the lyrics in some way make fun of African Americans? I think this is a thing to put one's foot down on, definitely. If the race of the preacher has nothing to do with anything in the song, I have to wonder why people bring it up, and this I would question. If the people in your family regularly share and giggle over a racist story, that's a different problem that is really offensive. As for a song that pokes fun of somebody's mispronunciation, kind of not nice, I suppose. But if it is a song about your relatives' farm, I think that is so far removed from the situation that it is not worth getting riled up about.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:54 AM on October 24, 2011

What I would do is just not sing the song. I don't pray when my family gets together on holidays and prays before the meal, and I wouldn't sing a song about the lord being good to me for the same reasons. I also wouldn't sing a song I thought was racist. I also wouldn't sing, period, because I'm just a party pooper like that.

I do think you're being a little harsh on your in-laws, though. This sounds like the sort of thing that might have been started by someone who thought it was funny for offensive racial reasons, but has now been watered down into a family tradition that no one really gives much thought to.

If you want to risk rocking the boat, instead of just abstaining from singing (which you should do, obviously, since you're not comfortable with it), you can bring up the history and ask why they continue to sing the song. The kids probably all think they're singing a song about the family vacation home. You can explain to them, carefully and in a way that doesn't paint their probably well-meaning (living) family members in a bad light, how the words in the song came to be, and ask them if they think that making fun of someone for speaking differently or being uneducated is OK.

(You'll probably have better luck talking to the kids about this. I have a feeling that the adults will get defensive.)
posted by phunniemee at 8:55 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems closer to the way my family still teases my sister about saying "kittnen" instead of kitten even though she stopped mispronouncing it thirty years ago than it does to hilarious racism. But I too find myself thinking much more carefully about situations where race is even tangentially involved, so I don't blame you for being concerned and feeling awkward about the whole thing.

My inlaws have a few habits and traditions I find obnoxious and sometimes repugnant and I feel fine about telling my daughters so.
posted by padraigin at 9:00 AM on October 24, 2011

I disagree with michaelh. Embedded in this song is an implicit disdain for the mental abilities of this preacher, his supposedly faulty grasp of the written word, and for his attempt to extemporize on a misread word. Hearing this story, I would be offended.
I can't tell you how many times I have heard white person, one that I admire and respect, tell me that racist texts (like Little Black Sambo) are part of their childhood, and therefore somehow above criticism. It is an exertion of white privilege to insist that people of color embrace the humor or sentimental appeal of texts and institutions that are degrading to them.
However, I do agree that this might not be the hill that you want to die on, especially if it means keeping the peace with your inlaws. A more effective approach might involve teaching them to recognize where privilege is exerted in the everyday world around them, at their school, or in the city in which you live. When the time comes, they will be able to hear this story, and recognize the ways in which it is an example of the crazy racialized past of the Americas.
posted by pickypicky at 9:03 AM on October 24, 2011 [28 favorites]

Is it funny because the preacher in question was a bit of a hick or was it funny because the preacher in question was a black hick? That would be the line for me.

I'd probably only call him out on it if he was making the joke in public though, familial relations are dangerous waters.
posted by Slackermagee at 9:03 AM on October 24, 2011

My parents found (especially when we lived in the south) various Southern and Black pronunciations hilarious. They used to rail against "ebonics." Because, you know, white, college educated people know best, amirite? Except where compassion and decency are involved, apparently.

So, this Peasle Tree business came from a place of crudeness if not outright racism. (Though, of course, it is racist. "You hear that old stupid, black country preacher?! What an idjit!") However, over time, it has taken on another meaning for this family and for them this song is probably a sweet family tradition that they take heart in. A little family song before dinner -- how cute! You really won't be thought well of if you tarnish their tradition.

Though I wouldn't sing either because I don't pray before meals. I also don't know that I'd explain the whole complicated business to my children. It's just going to get back to your in-laws when the kids talk about it amongst themselves. Don't get stuck calling your family racist over this.

If it were just a blessing without the Peasle Tree - would you sing along heartily? I guess that does get a little more complicated. You could always fall back on the original Apple Tree. Probably no one would notice.
posted by amanda at 9:11 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

To answer your first question, yes. This is absolutely racist and offensive. It's easy to see this if you imagine yourself explaining the joke to the people who are the butt off the joke.
posted by rdr at 9:11 AM on October 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can easily see the butt of the joke himself laughing his head off if he heard about this. Perhaps if the link talked about the man being a complete idiot, this would be wrong, but it commends his oratory skills and praises him as a pastor. And I can tell you that opening to a random verse and misinterpreting it, mispronunciation or no, a) happens all over in American Evangelical/Baptist churches, b) is considered to be funny yet often serendipitously beneficial all over in American Evangelical/Baptist churches when it's done wrong.

Maybe you could find some white pastor who got things wrong and make a new song.
posted by michaelh at 9:20 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I definitely agree this is racist, but I think the most important thing is their general attitude. Are there other instances of racism with your in-laws? If so... you've got a bigger situation on your hands.

Another thing that I think is important is that I believe our modern society is much more sensitive to racism (and other -isms) than a couple generations ago. If this tradition started when racism was part of society, they probably don't think of it in its original context. If they don't refer to the original context - and aren't teaching the kids that context - they probably think little of how the family joke started. That doesn't make it less racist, but it does mean you're dealing with people who likely have a different attitude on racist issues than they did decades ago.

You have to choose your fights wisely. Is fighting against this family tradition worth it, or is there a better way you could teach your kids respect?
posted by DoubleLune at 9:21 AM on October 24, 2011

[folks, please answer the question the OP is asking specifically and don't turn this into an argument about your own feelings about race issues. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:26 AM on October 24, 2011

Seems like you're making a peasle tree from a hill of beans.

Lots of commonly used phrases have pretty racist origins but for the most part are divorced from their original meanings. This isn't quite the same case here but it still seems pretty innocent.
posted by modernserf at 9:27 AM on October 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

You could make a case that just about any folk song is offensive to someone, somewhere. There are all those Irish songs about killing babies and infidelity. It was only after I grew up that I found out that one of my favorite songs, "Soldier's Joy," is all about morphine addiction. But as anti-drug as I am, I don't go around condemning it. You can't keep your children under a rock.
posted by Melismata at 9:30 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's way too Brer Rabbit-y for me. There are lots of non-racially specific jokes based on people misunderstanding churchy language or language of state, but in this one it is specified that the preacher is black. And as amanda points out, there is a lot of racist joking around about people's language. So this is the kind of thing it is prudent to avoid. I wouldn't shame anyone about it though, if they don't otherwise seem racist.
posted by BibiRose at 9:31 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

No, it isn't.

Is it funny because the preacher in question was a bit of a hick or was it funny because the preacher in question was a black hick?

The blackness seems pretty incidental. In Grandpa's time everyone was racist, and these days we aren't, and we still find "Peasle Tree" funny because hey, pronunciation error / neologism is cute and funny.

1. Illiterate preacher makes a cute mistake. (he was black BTW)
2. Grandpa thinks it is funny.
3. Kids take joke and run with it.
4. Three generations later, family has this cute song with "Peasle Tree" in it.

How many degrees of separation before we can just leave it be? Or do we erase and discard everything that happened before 1960, just to be safe? Look at the bright side - it is a cute little family quirk, and kind of amazing in this day and age to have a family with this kind of institutional memory intact.

And that guy (oh BTW he was black) has managed a little bit of immortality, I am sure he'd be chuffed.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:32 AM on October 24, 2011 [11 favorites]

modernserf, I like how you link to a thread that has a great number of posters stating that no, those slurs are not actually "divorced from their original meanings".

OP, I'd find it offensive and uncomfortable and I wouldn't want my kids participating either. Unfortunately, I really wouldn't know how to go about that, given the family history there. I'd encourage you to talk to your partner and see what they say, they may have never thought about how it would sound to an "outsider" to their family tradition.
posted by lydhre at 9:34 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with Meatbomb, and add that the fact that the original word was "psaltery", a word hardly anyone knows or uses today, makes the whole thing even more removed and vague in its offensiveness. Unless one of your kids plays the psaltery.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:43 AM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am also wondering, how much are the texts OP linked to part of the tradition, looked at and commented upon by family members? Because those are much more racist, to me, than the joke as summarized.
posted by BibiRose at 9:49 AM on October 24, 2011

I would picture myself trying to explain to one of my black friends that yes, my family sings a traditional song based on this old racist story, and no, it's not racist today but we still sing it because it's cute...and I picture myself stammering and getting quieter and quieter as I tried to explain it.

I mean, this isn't just a song that descends from Jim Crow times but that doesn't talk about racism; this is a song that derives from a racist joke. It's a shame, it sure is, that this family tradition has such a repulsive origin - and it's worth remembering that this is one of the (minor, trivial, privileged-problem) things that suck about racism, that it is a corrupting presence in everyone's history.

I would really, really hate to cause a family quarrel about this, but I just don't see how I could sing it knowing the origin. Talk to your partner and see if there's a way to bring it up gently as a concern rather than as a "ZOMG this is SO RACIST" thing...or at least see if you and your kids can simply quietly not sing if that's too much.
posted by Frowner at 9:52 AM on October 24, 2011 [10 favorites]

Greetings. I imagine many people deciding that it is inoffensive or "no longer inoffensive" are not people who are considered the "butt" of the joke. It's like if someone asks if something is offensive to women, and I as a man spoke up to say "NO". If was at that gathering, I would want to leave, especially if I was the only AA person in attendance with a bunch of whites happily singing this little song. It would be no big thing, but I would not consider this group to be people I want to spend the day with. I see a problem mainly if this is the only reference to an African American or AA culture during the entire event (as this type of thing often is). After being "imported" many Africans were actually taught/forced to communicate in this undignified manner (and those of us who know, generally hate it). There is a long dark American history behind this type of thing and most of us who are the "butt" will surely register different feelings about this than many people who are not.
posted by StUdIoGeEk at 10:22 AM on October 24, 2011 [6 favorites]

The blackness seems pretty incidental.

It doesn't to me. Whenever I hear something along the lines of "Isn't it DARLING how this adult mispronounced this word", the person is never white. It's totally fine to view this as another "oh, it sure is cute how non-whites don't speak English very well" joke and see it as racist in that light.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:24 AM on October 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Here's an original report of the preacher fomr 1870, mid-way down the first column. While the language used would not be acceptible today ("old darky preacher"), I have no concept of how biggoted this reference would have been in context.
posted by bonehead at 10:28 AM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can easily see the butt of the joke himself laughing his head off if he heard about this.

And that guy (oh BTW he was black) has managed a little bit of immortality, I am sure he'd be chuffed.

Yeah, stop with this. It's condescending to say that you can "easily see" or that you're "sure" how someone else would feel being made the butt of a joke that is potentially racist.

Personally, I find the idea of creating a song about someone else's mistake to be mean-spirited and I would not participate in singing this song or allow my children to do so for that fact alone (whether or not this "harmless" song would be sung and its origin explained if I were at the table is another matter). But seriously, I am unable to construe any benign reason why this story/recording would have resonated so strongly with the paternal grandfather. The only reasons I can come up with have paternalistic racism, privilege, and patronization at their core. Whether or not you want to make this sort of casual racism an issue is 100% your call. This kind of crap is everywhere, and as you can see from this thread, it doesn't really register as a big deal for many people.
posted by eunoia at 10:36 AM on October 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

To me, there's a difference between being insensitive about the past and wronging people in the present.

So, my test is usually:
1. Is anyone today being harmed by carrying on this tradition?
2. If you brought a black friend into the room and explained the origins of this, what would they think?

On #1, I find it hard to imagine anyone is being harmed. Even your kids probably aren't going to read too much into it. I mean, compare and contrast this with the brain warping effects of watching the nightly news.

On #2. It'd probably bug them at least a little bit, but more in the "these people sure can't see things from my perspective" way. I don't think anyone would look at your family and think "this is why blacks are treated as second class citizens".

Certainly not worth getting all up in your in-laws' faces.
posted by pjaust at 10:41 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

It'd probably bug them at least a little bit, but more in the "these people sure can't see things from my perspective" way. I don't think anyone would look at your family and think "this is why blacks are treated as second class citizens".

I think that these two things are the same. The reason that racial minorities are often treated as second-class citizens in a society that likes to think of itself as egalitarian and race-blind is, in large part, because members of the racial majority can't or refuse to try to see things from the minority's perspective.

OP, how old are your kids? If they're old enough to have a conversation about it, I'd have a conversation with them about the origins of the song and talk with them about privilege and perspective and how the deep racial animus of our past often persists in gestures we pass off as innocuous. But I definitely would discourage them from singing the song. If they're too young to have that conversation, then yes, I'd refuse to let them participate, even if it meant angering my in-laws.
posted by decathecting at 10:46 AM on October 24, 2011

Best advice I ever got when pondering situations like this is to be judicious in picking your battles.

"Is this the hill you want to die on?"

Calling them out will probably start a war. If you want/need this fight, make your stand. If, however, the in-laws are decent people and you want to maintain a positive relationship, do what the others above said and let the kinds play along and just give them some perspective later on in life.
posted by Queen Sabium at 10:46 AM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

So they sing:
Oh, the Lord's been good to me. 
And so I thank the Lord 
For giving me the things I need: 
The sun, the rain and the peasel tree; 
Oh, the Lord's been good to me. 

That doesn't seem racist, especially as the children don't know the origins of peasel tree and probably assume it came from within the family itself (maybe only some families do this but mine certainly has a lot of deliberately mispronounces words as "in-jokes"). Maybe the story resonated with the grandpa because that was how HE also pronounced psaltry. It is certainly much less offensive than words like "lame" or "gypped" or "caveman" because the origins of the word itself are somewhat obscured. Judging by the google hits (I only got three sites) it is not a well known sermon. Mispronunciations, and mocking them can definitely have nasty privilege based motivations; or they could be a shared joke because everyone mispronounces word sometimes. I try to be very conscious of my words but absent other racist nonsense would let your in-laws keep their family tradition.
posted by saucysault at 10:52 AM on October 24, 2011 [9 favorites]

You might object on the grounds that the practice is just dumb rather than that its offensive (an accusation which itself may offend).
posted by goethean at 10:55 AM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think the origin story of the term is offensive and racist, in which I mean that whoever originated the story probably meant for it to be all "haha black people can't read." But I think that someone could find it funny with the race being incidental, or without even thinking the guy in the story was actually stupid or anything; some people like language misunderstanding jokes, or you could feel it's about a preacher spouting bullshit (if you're anti-religious), or just someone trying to look wise when they're not, etc. (The last interpretation is what I would find amusing, if anything.)

So here's the thing: you have two options, one easy, one not so easy.

Easy Option: If there aren't any racial undercurrents going on when the term comes up, you could let it go. In fact, if you find yourself having to retell the story, you don't even have to mention that the preacher was black. You could just say it was a preacher and it would make as much sense.

But if there are racial undercurrents when it comes up, I would be pretty uncomfortable and I wouldn't want to encourage kids to laugh at that. If there are any racial undercurrents, I wouldn't go with the easy option. I might not go with it regardless, although it's a perfectly good option.

Not As Easy Option: Depending on how old the kids are, they might be able to handle knowing the song originally started as a racist thing, just as a weird family ancestry fact. I grew up in a white Southern family with generations of roots, and as a kid I was always hearing like, "Oh yeah, that cousin was TOTALLY racist," in anecdotes and whatnot. It didn't make me think racism was okay, it just made me appreciate how pervasive racism was and that blood ties didn't predict anything about a person's worth because my relatives could still hold horrible values -- which is really the opposite of racism, where you're encouraged to think blood ties are all that matter. It basically taught me that what matters about people is what they believe and how they treat other people, and that even with closer racist relatives I could still love them and know that they were really wrong about some things. I can't imagine a healthier lesson than that.

Come to think of it, I think the book Nurtureshock, in its section on racism, noted that the worst thing white parents can do is not talk about racism in hopes of encouraging colorblindness (because kids notice ALL differences and will latch onto them if they aren't taught any better), or only mention it in passing like it's so bad you can't talk about it. My parents were open about racism when I was growing up, and my mom would say stuff like, "Now, we're going to see Relative So-and-So, and she might say bad things about Minority Group, but she doesn't know any better." I don't remember what she told me so that I didn't try to teach those relatives better, but I somehow knew I was just supposed to let it go and know that it was wrong and it was a regrettable thing that I could not fix because they were too set in their ways. You'd think that would teach me not to stand up when people are being racist, but somehow I knew it was okay to do that with people my age (I was only a kid, after all, so it wasn't unreasonable to discourage me from trying to change my relatives' minds). Between my parents and school, I had a decent grasp of how people didn't realize racism was bad until some time before I was born, and some people still didn't get it, and it's not easy to fix them, and I was able to handle various situations well. As best I can remember, I didn't really have any obviously racist thoughts about minorities, it was just customary that some families might do things differently because of their culture, or they have another language they speak sometimes, or whatever. One family of one race might do things this way, and another family of that same race does it the same way my family does... it all seemed pretty random and not something you could predict based on appearance so I didn't try. If I didn't like people it was because they were mean, and the only person I ever really disliked was white because he was a real dick. I had crushes on black and white and Asian boys, and Middle Eastern girls. In elementary school, by chance, I ended up with like, one white friend and the rest were all other races, and I didn't even notice until middle school when my dad fumbled one of their names and jokingly asked me why I don't have white friends.

Point is, kids do well when alerted to racism early and it's not like, a really awkward conversation where they feel Something is Wrong because their parent is nervous. Just be direct about it, if you talk to them, and they'll probably take it well. I definitely feel that a lot of the reason I didn't turn out racist was because my parents didn't try to hide our racist relatives, or the fact racism exists, or that some of the stuff that's in place now has racist roots, and what-have-you. It's really not complicated to grasp, even for children, but I think a lot of people don't want to bring it up because they think letting their kids know it exists will make racism an option for them (not true), or they worry that if they tell them a relative is racist they'll think that relative is a monster or try to emulate them, both of which are surprisingly easily avoided. What's much more likely, by the way, if they like the relative, is that they'll adopt their racist mindset if they DON'T know the relative is racist; Uncle John will say something about black people, and the kid will just assume he's right because Uncle John rules!

So: You just tell them the truth, which is racism is wrong and some people are wrong and people you love can be wrong, and it's okay to be bothered when relatives are racist and it's okay to love them anyway.

To that end, I think that you might be making racism an Unspeakable Spectre if you later decide like, to tell them not to sing the family song because at one point, it was connected to racism. It's good for kids to learn nuance early, and doing that doesn't really teach them anything about why racism is wrong, it just encourages them to flee the discussion whenever something slightly brushes against racism. Plus it's good for kids to know that racism isn't a lifelong, unforgivable brand, because if they don't know that, they won't ever admit to any racism in themselves or make any effort to change it; they'll either deny it or defend it and stay a little bit racist and get really upset instead of addressing the issue productively. Let them be aware of the fallibility of adults in their life, let them learn to recognize exactly what is bad and what is otherwise neutral in issues, etc.

Given the way I was raised, I would just tell the kids the origin while making it clear racism is wrong, explain that a relative was racist if that's the case, tell them we sing the song because it's tradition and isn't inherently racist because it doesn't matter that the preacher was black, say they should ignore possible racist relative if he's all racist about it, and I wouldn't even consider there are other options. That's how perfunctory racism discussions were when I was growing up, like after the first couple racism discussions I would be told relatives were racist in the same way I'd be told their hair color and it didn't really faze me. Then I knew what to expect from those relatives and found their remarks baffling but it was all rather easy to handle. Since I got taught in school from at least first grade about racism, and my parents made it out to be such a "duh" thing to not be racist, it was weird to me that some adults didn't realize something so obvious, kind of like if I found out they didn't know the alphabet; it gave me a weird kind of little kid dignity that made me pity them, not even in a snotty way, but in a way that made me think it must be awful because I wouldn't even know where to begin to teach someone something that basic, and I'd be missing out if I didn't like, know the alphabet or something. I think maybe that's why I knew not to say anything to people over a certain age; if a seven year old didn't know the alphabet, you'd still feel there was hope, but adults seem SO MUCH OLDER when you're a kid. If a racist relative was racist in front of me, after they left my parents would remark on whatever they said in an embarrassed, can-you-believe-it sort of laughing way, with that sort of "well bless their heart" approach Southerners take to people who a mixed bag of good and bad.

So I would encourage you to take the Not As Easy Option. And don't sell the kids short in other ways, either. For example, a lot of people then think, "Well what if I tell the kids and one of them tells the racist relative I said that?" (Assuming a relative in question actually is racist, of course.) Well, tell them not to tell the adult because it will hurt their feelings and won't change their mind, which is true. You can't safeguard against it entirely, but if the racist relative does find out about it, then just talk about it. Model honesty for your kids. Model talking things out, even and especially difficult topics. Model being reasonable and having principles, explain to them that racist people get defensive and why, show that sometimes you just have to do your best about it and other people either can or can't be persuaded depending on the outcome with the relative, etc. I saw some family disagreements go that way as a kid and I honestly think I'm better for it.

In fact, another thing Nurtureshock talks about is how it's better for kids to see arguments than to shield them from them, providing the arguments have resolutions. Between parents those arguments should end in compromise or at least forgiveness, but when outsiders get angry at you, kids need to see that you handle it by being honest and reasonable, that you are not mean or contemptuous and do not escalate things, etc. So if your racist relative started berating you, you'd want to *not* come back with, "I'M RIGHT, STUFF IT YOU RACIST FUCK!" but genuine regret that they feel bad while still being honest, like, "I didn't mean to upset you, but I wanted the kids to know that it's not right to feel that way about minorities. You can understand that, right?" and then keep your cool even if no, they can't understand that. Then the kids learn that arguments in which no one wins are not cause for emotional breakdown, they're just regrettable things that will happen sometimes and all you can do is try to be reasonable. One thing I've observed is that people who take disagreements really badly, or are very sensitive about the slightest disagreement, or don't like talking about problems (so their problems don't get resolved), usually had poor models for disagreements growing up; they get the impression that disagreements are so awful they must be avoided at all costs, even if you have to sacrifice your happiness and principles or lie about stuff. They need to know bad things aren't insurmountable. So don't go seeking out disagreements or anything, but if it comes up as a result of an honest, good-intentioned effort on your part, and you discourage them from telling others because it will hurt someone's feelings, it won't be the end of the world and they'll learn how to handle a bad situation, they'll better understand they *why* of why you don't tell someone that sort of thing (they can figure out the "how" of and "when" of doing it anyway when they're older), etc.
posted by Nattie at 11:15 AM on October 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Flag it and move on.

Note your objection to your spouse and let it be.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:19 AM on October 24, 2011

By the way, to add to my wall of text: if you discuss it with the kids, they might decide that they don't want to sing it, or you could discuss why maybe you shouldn't sing it anyway by talking over historical context and applying it to this circumstance, etc. Not to sound all after-school special about it, it's really not as eyerolling as it sounds in practice; you might mention that it's racist and one of them may say they don't think it's racist because they don't mean anything racist by it, and you can talk more about if that's enough reason to keep singing it, etc. That might be more difficult with younger kids, though.
posted by Nattie at 11:19 AM on October 24, 2011

I'd probably spend some time and thought assessing the rest of the family's behavior. Was the explanation of the story heavy on "Haha, black preacher was stoopid" or "Cute old family story {based on historically-typical racism.}" Are they classist, racist, or otherwise continuing to promote values at odds with yours? Bring another song to Thanksgiving, and say "Kiddo and I have a song we'd like to share, too" and teach it. Talk to your kiddo(s) about racism, what it means, and why it's such a big deal. You can stay silent while the family sings. Maybe you can initiate a dinner-table discussion of the origin of the peasel tree and whether or not it's racist.

People often accept casual racism instead of calling it out because it causes conflict. If it's (potentially) racist, it should be talked about. Some people aren't going to change, and on balance, calling out (potentially) racism vs. disrespecting the grandparents, respecting the grands, and explaining to the kids, is my strategy.
posted by theora55 at 11:31 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might object on the grounds that the practice is just dumb rather than that its offensive

For the record, that's my objection.
posted by Rash at 11:43 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd feel like all of the above arguments would be totally worth having if folks were doing a live performance of the original album's sermon or if the song being sung had anything to do with the racist (yes, racist) original joke beyond the name. But given that it really doesn't have any connection anymore, I don't think doing it now is any more supportive of racism than... well, Thanksgiving, lots of the Bible, there's plenty of stuff we Americans do with our families in November and December that has some fairly awful history.

The Johnny Appleseed song is annoying even without this addition and the whole situation would probably be a lot easier to deal with if they didn't call it "the peasle tree song." Because it's not the Peasle Tree song -- it's "The Lord is Good to Me" with a peasle tree substituted once. I can't place where they would replace words for "Peasle Tree" in the last line, but it's a song of thanksgiving and if they do it where it makes sense, it makes total sense that someone in your family would give thanks for the family's vacation home. That's what it means now.

It's definitely icky if you think about how grandpa once upon a time found a racist joke funny, so funny that he'd name property after it (be glad you didn't marry into Rick Perry's family), and if the family still had the vacation home, I'd rally around a name change, but in this usage/instance, it seems like energy better spent elsewhere.

If this all the racism one can attribute to their relatives two generations or go, I'd consider yourself blessed. Hell, if Facebook is to be believed, plenty of people are dealing with plenty of racist family members in their friend's list right now.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:54 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If the song as quoted by saucysalt is what's being sung, I think you should leave it alone. At that point what you have is one context-free reference to one story of murky origins in the middle of an otherwise perfectly innocuous blessing. Maybe it's because of my own family and upbringing, but this seems incredibly benign.
posted by hermitosis at 11:55 AM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have no doubt that grandfather was just as racist in his motives as you think he was.

However, I think the interpolation of the "Peasle tree" was anything but inadvertent.

At first I thought the sermon was purely satirical, had probably never bounced off the walls of a church of any description, and was probably written by a white person to boot.

But now I'm convinced it was an entirely self-conscious and well-crafted sales pitch for magical charms, delivered by an itinerant salesman who was more "hoodoo man" than preacher, not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive:

"Now, my text dis beautiful Sabbath morn will be de Peasle Tree! I's gib a great deal of thought to study of de history of de Peasle Tree. De Peasle Tree was a tree what grow up in Moses' backyard down in de land of Egypt.

"And, when de Peasle Tree is growed up and flourish like de young shade tree, Moses went out in de backyard and he took his two bit Barlow knife … de one dat has four blades and a beer opener in de back … and he cut hisself a staff off'n de Peasle Tree and when he has skinned de staff up good and smooth, de Lawd spake unto Moses and he say, "Moses, take thy Peasle Tree staff in thy hand and put thy food in de middle of de big road leadin' on down to of Mr. Pharaoh's house! ...

"And, when Moses see dat Pharaoh is hard in his heart, 'gainst him like dat, Moses jus drop de Peasle Tree staff on de ground and it turn into a fiery serpent! Pharaoh jumps back from de fiery serpent … he scared! Moses jus retch down and pick up de fiery serpent by de tail and strip it 'round his head three times for luck and make a cross on de ground and spit in de middle of it, take de conju'e off, and turn back into a Peasle Tree cane!

"Pharaoh say, 'Now look here, Moses, whilest you was talking, I been studyin' 'bout dis thing, let's talk reasonable 'bout did now! Dem Chillen of Israel is powerful poor field hands anyhow and dey done et dere heads off many times over. Dere hardly no rations left in de land for my own people … gwine turn 'em loose!' ...

"And, when dey gets to de Red Sea, de Chillen of Israel look and dey say, 'Moses, ain't no ferry and ain't no ford … how we gwine get across? Now, jus look at de mess you and de Lawn done got us in, jus look at de mess you got us in!'

"And, Moses, he jus cool as de center seed of a cucumber! He wave his hand seven times from de East to de West and de wind blow de leaves of de Peasle Tree, and blow de Red Sea back and de chillen march over on dry foots!

"And when dey get over on de other side, dey look back and dey see de hosts of Egypt followin' 'em and de Chillen of Israel scared and dey huddle 'round Moses like sheeps round a shepherd dog. But Moses, he ain't a'scared and he jus turn 'round and he wave his hand back de other way seven times from de West to de East and de wind blow back thru de leaves of de Peasle Tree, and drown all de hosts of Eqypt! ...

"Some folks said dat it was manna dey et in de wilderness. Nothin' t'all but peasles! Some folks said a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of clouds by day guided 'em. Nothin' t'all but jus de moon shinin' on de leaves of de Peasle Tree at night and de shade of de Peasle Tree in de daytime!

"Brethen and Sistern I says unto you, verily, verily in dat last great day, when de Angel Gabriel shall come and de earth is rolled up like de ol' newspaper and cast on de fiery flames to burn, and de sheeps is gathered on de right and de goats is gathered on de left … Brethen and Sistern, in dat day if you 'spects to take yoah place on de right and be told off by Saint Peter whilest you march thru dem Pearly Gates and walk on dem golden streets wearin' dem golden slippers, Brethen and Sistern you must be found wearin' a right smart size bunch of peasle leaves in yoah pocket! Amen!"

Followed by an offer to sell pockets-full of peasle leaves for all the hoodoo man thought the market could bear, I suspect.

Wikipedia has this to say about Hoodoo:

While folk practices like hoodoo are trans-cultural phenomena, what is particularly innovative in this tradition is the "remarkably efficacious use of biblical figures" in its practices and in the lives of its practitioners.[1]

The word hoodoo first was documented in American English in 1875 and was listed as a noun or a transitive verb.[2][3] In African American Vernacular English (AAVE), it is often used to describe a magic spell or potion, but it may also be used as an adjective for a practitioner. Regional synonyms for hoodoo include conjuration, conjure, witchcraft, or rootwork.[4]

Yes, this family tradition was born trailing clouds of racism inglorious, and I would be, if I were you, perpetually tempted to point out to the family that, by invoking the peasle tree, they are essentially giving a black magic blessing to their celebrations.

But I wouldn't; the irony is just too delicious-- and made all the more so, incidentally, by the fact that Johnny Appleseed was not especially interested in apples for their own sake, but was instead an evangelist for the alcohol that could be distilled from the products of their fermentation.
posted by jamjam at 12:23 PM on October 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, I'm shocked that so many people don't find this offensive. I've lived in Texas and Louisiana, and in Oregon and New York, among other places, and let me tell you, people up North (especially in the very white pacific northwest) sometimes just really don't understand how sly, how subtle racism can sometimes be in the South. (I don't know where the OP is from, and I don't mean to tar and feather Southerners-I am one!- but I'm just using the distinction to illustrate a point based on personal experience.)

I have the misfortune of having racist relatives, and they're nice people. They're sweet and Christian and bake you pies. And they're racist. It's subtle. It's delicate. They KNOW they shouldn't say the things they say, so they hedge it and hide it in sly little jokes and tangential stories like this one. The OP pinged my radar for that exact type of racism, which I'm not sure you can understand unless you experience it. The "Ebonics joke" is a classic favorite with people like this.

I have no doubt it's racist.
posted by Nixy at 12:42 PM on October 24, 2011 [11 favorites]

I wasn't going to say anything, but I also wanted to help drive the point home about how harmful this is in the long-term. Just because people practice racism unaware of its implications and with a smile does not make it any less racist. Offensiveness aside: this is one of those passive microagressions that contributes to more serious displays of privilege, so thank you for listening to your gut.

Bring it up to your spouse first - as for how to handle it with the relatives, everyone else has made great suggestions upthread.
posted by Ashen at 12:50 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm curious because I feel like I could be missing something... but does obscurity not have any weight when it comes to privilege? For example, as a theoretical exercise, let's say that the grandpa had made up the joke. (Obviously he didn't, but let's say that he did so my question is clearer and I can figure out what I'm missing.) And let's say he made it up because it was racist. He named the family home after it. Maybe his kids grow up knowing the racist origins, but mostly the term, in their minds, is just what the home is called. Their kids, and their kids' kids, only know the term as the name of the home. The term "peasel tree" would not have anything to do with racism except in the mind of the grandfather, and in the mind of his kids it would be connected but they still have to call the property what the grandfather named it, because he's alive and it's his property. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren just take it to be a proper noun and it's never used in other contexts. A black person would never hear the term "peasel tree" and associate it with racism, nor would anyone else; one has to know the entire backstory.

That's the set-up.

Okay, so I understand that it's an example of privilege that, say, white people may not understand that they cannot dress up in blackface, even if they aren't portraying racist caricatures with it (say they're adapting some non-racist play to a one man show or something and they don't do the typical blackface exaggerated features), because white people dressing up as black people has an awful history and it hurts people to see; it's insensitive to do it when you know blackface was a thing, and if you didn't know, a decent person would be like, "Oh my god, I had no idea, I'm sorry." And it makes sense that it's insensitive to use tons of different words depending on the minority group because of historical contexts that still sting. And it's definitely messed up to purposefully express racist ideas by hiding them in nice things.

This is what I feel I don't understand: if there is no historical context for the word except for maybe two people, and no one is going to hear the word and feel badly, and no one who is saying the word anymore even knows it was racist, I don't get how that's privilege or oppressing anyone? I'm trying to put it in other contexts a bit closer to me, but if someone told me their family song actually originated from an obscure misogynistic or homophobic joke generations past, from which the punchline was appropriated for something else, and they're singing about that something else, and it's entirely inscrutable as something misogynistic or homophobic in the present tense and none of them are using it that way and it has none of that in context... I wouldn't think they were oppressing me or anyone else by singing it. I would think it was a weird bit of family trivia.

So is the objection here that "peasel tree" is recognizable to enough black people that people could be hurt by hearing the words, and thus it's privileged for the family to sing the song because they don't know that phrase causes pain for some people? (In other words, it's not obscure and who knows why I haven't heard it before?) Or is the objection that "peasel tree" on face sounds really racist and would make people think of Ebonics jokes (and I'm blind to that whereas others aren't)? Or is the objection that minorities, when told the backstory, would be hurt that you had racist ancestors? (I wouldn't hold this against someone, so I don't really know what to do with this.) Or they would think it's horrible the family hasn't renamed the property? (I guess I could see that?) Is it the idea that the family really does mean something racist when they sing the song, like they are singing it to make fun of black people or think about that when they sing it, either consciously or even unconsciously? (And in that case, is that cynicism talking or there's some larger philosophical argument?) Or is the objection something else?

If it's not about obscurity -- i.e. it's just as privileged to sing the song even if the grandfather and his children were the only people in the entire world that knew the origins of the phrase, and people agree that it's not something anyone would register as racist otherwise -- then... if the origin story was lost, does that make a difference? Surely if the family sold the property to another family, didn't tell them the origin of the name, and the new family didn't change the name because they had no reason to, the new family would not be harming anyone by continuing to call the property that? Or am I really misunderstanding and the new family would be exercising privilege too? I think the way I think of it, the unknowing in the family are no different than the "new family" in my hypothetical, so it's difficult for me to grasp where privilege enters. (I'm being sincere here -- not saying "I think of it XYZ way, therefore it *doesn't* enter.")

Or maybe to approach it from another angle, what if there were an imaginary race called Glorgs, and I thought Glorgs were soooo dumb. One day I come across a joke where the punchline is a Glorg thinks stained glass windows are made from butterfly wings. If I named my property "Butterfly Wing" and then there was a family song about how awesome Butterfly Wing is, at what point does this hurt Glorgs and how? Does it only hurt Glorgs if the butterfly wing joke is something a Glorg would have heard before? Or does it hurt Glorgs when they hear the backstory? Or calling the property that acts in a philosophical, political, social, systemic sort of way? (Which I do feel is just as harmful, in case that sounds dismissive; I'm just not clear on the type of harm that is caused.)

I get why the OP wouldn't want to sing the song, because they know the backstory and they have to think of it whenever the song comes up, so it's not just a random word to them; even if no minorities were ever offended by hearing the song, it could feel icky to sing because you can't help but think where the term came from. But I don't understand the argument in some of the comments that even the unknowing in the family are exercising privilege or otherwise contributing to the oppression of minorities if they continue to sing the song, and I'd like to understand that idea.
posted by Nattie at 2:51 PM on October 24, 2011

Some in my family have a tradition of switching the lines in "Saints of God" so that one saint was a "beast" and one was slain by a "fierce wild priest."

Heh, are we related, Wretch, or is this just a really common joke? My grandfather was an Episcopal priest and he always sang the song this way - he thought this was hilarious.

Anyway...OP, I don't know about your family, but in mine (from Alabama) I would be pretty sure that it's racially-based humor, and I'm kind of surprised that so many people here don't think so. I think the joke has a lot in common with these sorts of stories about baby names, which are extremely popular among my Southern relatives (Lemangelo/Orangelo in particular - to the point that someone can just say "Lemangelo and Orangelo!" without telling the whole story, but everyone knows what is being referred to). As for what you do about it...I don't know. It's offensive, but in a way that you're probably not going to have much luck explaining to your in-laws, and they're likely going to resent you if you go and "ruin" their family tradition. Have you talked to your spouse about his, and is he/she on the same page, or does he/she think you're being humorless/difficult/crapping on his/her family? Does he/she expect that this blessing will be used in your own home with just you and your children, or is it going to be brought out at big family gatherings only? Personally, I would probably just let it go but talk to my own kids about why we don't do it at our house ("we love grandpa, but we don't always agree with him..." etc.). Is there an expectation that you will sometimes host large family gatherings and that the song will be sung at your house as well if you do? If so maybe you should start instituting a new blessing tradition at your own house at least. Beyond that, I'm not really sure if there's much you can do...?
posted by naoko at 3:36 PM on October 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

HOW can anyone make the argument that this is an obscure joke whose origins aren't important when the family was able to tell the OP exactly where the joke came from??? If they all know what this tradition refers to and they continue it, then yes, this is pretty racist IMO. And also, HOW can anyone make the argument that it's ok because the kids don't understand it??? Kids don't need to understand what "Racism" is in order to start to pick up on all the little cues of prejudice around them. Eventually they will learn where the story came from (since everyone else in the family knows), and potentially get the idea that as white people, it is their right (as part of tradition) to make fun of "stupid minorities".

OP, I would first talk to your SO (as others have suggested), and then when your child is old enough to understand, have a talk about this with him/her. Maybe something like, "Child Anon, [here is the background to this song]. Some people might be hurt by this song because of [time to teach child about racism, etc.]. If you want to sing [stupid racist song] that's up to you -- you might like the song, and maybe it means something different to you, and that's ok. [Inlaws] don't have a problem with it, and that's their right, but I do personally have a problem with it because I think it could hurt people, and so I don't sing it. If you want to talk more about racism/prejudice/stereotypes, we can do that any time."*

*I'm an atheist and don't plan to raise my kids (should they ever exist) religious, though I also don't want to make religion the enemy or forbid them from taking part in it. So this is kind of a re-working of how I've imagined speaking to my children about religion.
posted by imalaowai at 5:55 PM on October 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would really, really hate to cause a family quarrel about this, but I just don't see how I could sing it knowing the origin. Talk to your partner and see if there's a way to bring it up gently as a concern rather than as a "ZOMG this is SO RACIST" thing...or at least see if you and your kids can simply quietly not sing if that's too much.

It would be hard for me to side with rejecting a rather speculative, remote level of offensiveness against something that is meaningful and well established as a family tradition. I mean, this isn't a case of "they really like this story"; it's a case of "they like this story so much they named real estate after it." As someone up thread said, is this the hill you want to die on? I think you should keep in mind that what this tradition is today was gradually divorced from its source material, or there's so much invested in this story as a matter of family tradition that it is necessary and forgivable that you overlook its arguably racist origins.
posted by jayder at 7:27 PM on October 24, 2011

It's obviously racist, but perhaps most easily solved with "I love the kids hearing this song, because it shows them how ridiculous priests are!"
posted by anildash at 10:12 PM on October 24, 2011

I think you should keep in mind that what this tradition is today was gradually divorced from its source material, or there's so much invested in this story as a matter of family tradition that it is necessary and forgivable that you overlook its arguably racist origins.

This is one of the things people say about racist college mascots. In both cases, who's it going to kill if this particular "tradition" is dropped? Every generation changes some things about their family's or institution's traditions. "Forgivable" I could understand, but "necessary" how? Yes, it is part of families and other institutions that they perpetuate themselves by having members repeat things they don't completely understand-- or even understand at all-- but there are limits to this sort of thing. If we kept every single tradition, we'd be saying and doing stupid things all day long.

If I were explaining something like this to kids, I'd probably present it something like, "This is an old-fashioned kind of humor and not one I care to keep going."
posted by BibiRose at 3:50 AM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is one of the things people say about racist college mascots. In both cases, who's it going to kill if this particular "tradition" is dropped?

The in-laws will freak out, that's what will happen (exactly the same way college alumni freak out if you try to get rid of their beloved, offensive mascots).

Look, I think in this case, it is a losing proposition to try to confront the in-laws on the song, provided that it is just a song now and there are no other explicitly racist aspects to it. It's offensive, sure, but it is not the same as using the n-word, so they are going to feel they are totally justified in keeping it.

The time to address racism is when it becomes explicit, or when the kids are old enough to understand all the subtlties that have been explained here by Southerners, which they aren't yet. If you attack this song, one the one hand, all you're going to get is the in-laws woundedly claiming that you are trying to ruin christmas and are trying to poison your kids against them; and on the other hand, your kids are going to be confused because the song seems so innocent on the surface. It's a lose-lose proposition -- you cause family dissent, and you don't teach your kids anything.

That said, it would sure stick in my craw to see my kids singing this song ...
posted by yarly at 7:51 AM on October 25, 2011

I'd be many people answering casually here could not imagine how issues like this affect the groups being "spoken for" or about. I literally feel sick to my stomach everytime I read through some of this thread. OP, your instincts are "on Point" and thank you for trying to steer your ship in the right direction.
posted by StUdIoGeEk at 9:07 AM on October 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

But I don't understand the argument in some of the comments that even the unknowing in the family are exercising privilege or otherwise contributing to the oppression of minorities if they continue to sing the song, and I'd like to understand that idea.

Well, for starters, I'd imagine that all the adults in the family can recite by heart the origin story of "Why do we sing peasel tree instead of apple seed". The only ones who are unknowing are probably kids, and at some point they're going to ask "Hey, what is a peasel tree anyways", and then they're going to be told the story.

If "non-whites don't speak English very well, and that is amusing" was an archaic stereotype, that'd be one thing, but that stereotype still exists today, and still serves as a way to make fun of non-whites. Singing this song as a family tradition almost ensures that the origin story is retold, either to children and people who happen to be around at family gatherings. Every time someone repeats a joke where the whole point of the joke is "non-whites don't speak English very well, and that is amusing" that hurts people because it perpetuates a current stereotype.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:21 PM on October 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


I grew up surrounded by African Americans and in my later years hung out in the bar scene with whites. The most astounding thing I've noticed is that... there's a distinct line in cultures. Whites, because of their privileged history, really cannot see the problem with hurtful relics of the past that seemingly affects minorities today.

Pjaust mentioned, "I don't think anyone would look at your family and think 'this is why blacks are treated as second class citizens'."

But that's just it. This is the reason why blacks ARE treated like second class citizens. Subtle junk like this. The same way women are seen as objects through subtle advertising creating an atmosphere of violence against us. Same propaganda happened to blacks. I'm Latina, I look mostly white and I still understand a smidgen of the emotional hurt from treatment African Americans took unjustly throughout history and to this day are still seen as second class even when they have a 3-piece business suit on. Sure, the family doesn't understand the racism behind this song but its still ok to stand up for what you believe in and educate. A lot of American Whites don't understand what an average black man or woman goes through. They never had to. They're not black.

For example, a friend who happens to be white hates it when people tell him "wow you have a lot of funk for a white guy." He's tired of having to prove himself to to black musicians. He doesn't want to be defined by his skin color. Which is awesome! Now, take that scenario and apply it to everything if you're black living in a post-European society. Blacks are only BEGINNING to hold powerful positions in this country with a disproportionate amount still in poverty. So, even though, for the most part, this family's kids will grow up to be well-adjusted, non-racist individuals and while the family isn't completely bigoted... they are ignorant. Ignorance is only bliss when it comes to Christmas gifts, or knowing your parents are absolutely A-Sexual. Other than that... it's not.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 9:46 PM on December 14, 2011

It's been a few months since you posted this question, anonymously, so I don't know if you'll ever see this, but here's how my relatives sing it:

Oh, the Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the friends I need
The sun, the rain, and my family
The Lord is good to me
Hallelujah, amen!

You could suggest the change without having to broach the subject-- because it's a sweet sentiment.
posted by dee lee at 8:24 PM on December 24, 2011

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