Discussing minstrel songs with kid's school
May 12, 2016 11:17 AM   Subscribe

I'd like some educational resources that I can share with my kid's daycare to help them understand why I don't want my toddler to learn blackface minstrel songs in music class.

This question comes from learning that the music class in my toddler's school includes blackface minstrel songs. I brought up my concern about this and said I'd like to start a conversation about it. I want to say that I want my kid to learn about these songs when old enough to also learn about the history and context. Since 2 year olds are a bit young to discuss slavery and minstrelsy, I don't want these songs included in the music class. The school seemed open to discussing this but confused by the concept of a minstrel song.

Are there some educational materials, websites, or similar that address why minstrel songs in young children's music education are a problem? I'd like something more to tell them than "These songs that you and everyone you know think of as sweet innocent kids' songs are horribly racist and you should feel bad." (I'm much more polite than that, but that's how I worry I'll be perceived.)
posted by medusa to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you tell us which particular songs are being taught? The specific lyrics involved might effect your approach.
posted by bq at 11:26 AM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Without knowing the songs it can be hard to address directly;

I'd suggest finding alternatives. I sat "Indian style" while my kids sit "criss cross apple sauce"
posted by tilde at 11:28 AM on May 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

A clarification question - is this a song that is obviously a minstrel song or is it a song that some may not be aware of as racist/the song's history?

Here's what I would say, "I understand that Mrs. MusicTeacher was not aware of the history behind these songs, but actually, those songs were created in the 19th century as part of entertainment shows designed to humiliate African Americans, often with white characters wearing blackface. I totally understand that these songs have lived on beyond that period, but I don't think that it is appropriate or kind for my kid, and frankly, all the kids in this school, to be perpetuating these racist songs."

I will add that personally I've found that combating this sort of stuff in school is an uphill battle and my approach is to do a lot of supplementary work at home. For example, my 1st grader learned about Christopher Columbus and the Founding Fathers but not that they aren't exactly good guys. So I made sure at home to talk a lot about how the Founding Fathers owned slaves and we have a great book that looks at Christopher Columbus from the perspective of a young native boy.
posted by k8t at 11:29 AM on May 12, 2016 [13 favorites]

I looked at this list of minstrel songs and I'm guessing it is Oh Susanna or Jimmy Crack Corn. I'm guessing because these songs were on a ton of kids music complications that I had when my kid was a toddler.
If this is the case and these are songs that are sort of in that category of "kids songs" I would probably pull a "hey, did you know that those songs are pretty racist? Let's take those out of the rotation" and hope for the best. As I recall in my kid's preschool years, some of the teachers, especially older teachers, had the same old CD or list of songs that they did and since they have 763 million other things to worry about, the list of songs didn't get updated.
posted by k8t at 11:36 AM on May 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yeeps. Well, if you're interested in educating the "confused" teachers, you can recommend they watch Spike Lee's
Bamboozled, or even just the final scene, with many examples.

Final Scene

posted by Dressed to Kill at 11:46 AM on May 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing this is about the problematic repertoire of Stephen Foster in general.
posted by rhizome at 11:47 AM on May 12, 2016

Good question. The song I heard in my class visit was Shoo Fly. But I guess I'm reluctant to nix just that song, if it will get replaced with Oh Susanna or whatever.
posted by medusa at 12:12 PM on May 12, 2016

This site isn't a resource specifically regarding music education, but might be a good jumping off point for you to simply explain why the content is not acceptable.

(As an aside, it was interesting to read that minstrel shows died out in America in the 1930s whilst they were still going strong on TV in the UK when I was a girl in the 1980s!)

As a music educator myself, I draw an awful lot on folk music. They're an incredibly rich and musically valuable resource, that are easy to teach and can open the door to lots of 'teachable' musical moments. In fact, American folk music is an interesting remnant of many lost English folk forms, so I use them all the time.

Here's a couple of books of Folk songs which you may want to recommend to your school's music teacher(s) which have great songs that children love to sing:

First We Sing - an International collection of easy to sing folk songs, many with games (always a winner!) plus activities and notes on historical and/or social context.

Pentatonic Partners - a set of 5-note songs, which are easy to sing for young children (mostly American folk songs) with suggested simple percussion accompaniments.
posted by dogsbody at 12:18 PM on May 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

Those old songs are out of copyright, which makes them hassle-free. See what you can find for replacements with no copyright.
posted by theora55 at 12:49 PM on May 12, 2016

Note that some POC think many of these songs are reclaimable. Sweet Honey in the Rock did a very nice version of "Shoo Fly" on their kids' album.
posted by rikschell at 1:11 PM on May 12, 2016 [11 favorites]

I would start by explaining to the staff what minstrel music was, period. Most of the easily recognizable songs on that wiki list are songs that made it into the Looney Tunes or Disney animated shorts instrumental librettos-- I had no idea they were minstrel songs and not white Americana kitsch. They've been pretty heavily whitewashed since the Disney shorts used them (the 20's) and presented as white folk music, and depending on their music education I think it's possible your child's teachers have no idea there's anything more sinister going on with songs like Shoo Fly or Turkey in the Straw or whatever, because most the media that's used these songs has done a thorough job of expunging that history from their presentation.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:03 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I'm pretty into folk music and even I had no idea "Shoo Fly" was part of minstrel tradition. I think just try explaining it as a concept first off.
posted by corb at 2:10 PM on May 12, 2016

[A couple of comments deleted. Folks, OP is asking for strategies or materials etc, for bringing this up with the school - not for a discussion of whether they should bring it up.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:54 PM on May 12, 2016

I think this is going to be a tough one because these songs are so ingrained in our culture.

Here's a website discussing some of these songs and their evolution to become children's songs. It contains, for instance, the original lyrics to "Oh, Susanna" ("I jump’d aboard the telegraph and trabbeled down de ribber, De lectrie fluid magnified, and kill’d five hundred [N-word]").

Here are some similar web resources:
- NPR article on ice cream truck song
- Vox.com: "The Racist Children's Songs You Never Knew Were Racist"

Your question also made me think of the Key & Peele sketch where they're attending a funeral of a family member and screen clips from his film career, not realizing that they are all basically minstrel shows. I'm not sure if seeing that would provide some context, or if you need the context to understand it in the first place.
posted by chickenmagazine at 3:15 PM on May 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's a contentious issue. When I was young, I grew up with those bouncy Burl Ives/Disney interpretations of Stephen Foster music, and then I got a bit older and discarded all of that stuff as puerile childish things. And then... I got even older, and I started to understand some of the negative cultural contexts, but also some of the well-crafted musical artistry involved. But I wouldn't want to make anyone listen to it if they weren't comfortable about it.
posted by ovvl at 7:16 PM on May 12, 2016

I have a vague memory of the line changed to "for I'm in love with somebody" when it was taught to my class.
posted by brujita at 10:52 PM on May 12, 2016

Don't forget that the battles you choose are going to affect your child. Perhaps in ways you are not aware of or did not consider.

Make your point to the degree you feel you must. I am not saying otherwise. But don't lose sight of the fact that taking this stance on behalf of your child subjects him/her to the reactions and attitudes of others, who may not be skilled enough to prevent any issues they may have with you from affecting those interactions.

IMO, in cases like this, expecting tact, sensitivity and consideration to always carry the day is disingenuous. Pick your battles but remember, you chose to involve your child. And children cannot defend themselves when it comes to adult issues.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:09 AM on May 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

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