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[Detail] Soldier and Two Women.

Symbolism in Song

Two nineteenth-century newspaper articles attest to the power of symbolism in song in their accounts of two groups of African Americans refusing to sing the songs "America" and "Dixie." In 1892, African-American members of a church were assembled to discuss how to improve their condition in the South when the pastor tried to lead them in singing "America." Many in attendance refused to join in and, as the Cleveland Gazette article, "Refused to Sing 'America'" explained, one man objected, "I don't want to sing that song until this country is what it claims to be, a 'sweet land of liberty.'" The congregation did, however, join the pastor when he started a new song.

  • What are the values and interests underlying the song, "America"?
  • Why was the notion of a "sweet land of liberty" objectionable?
  • Might the lyrics of "America" still be objectionable to some? Why or why not?

Nine years later, the Cleveland Gazette article, "Refused to Sing 'Dixie'" described a group of African-American school children who refused to participate in a Memorial Day activity of singing "Dixie". The article reported that one child:

could not see his way clear to celebrate the memory of the fallen soldier and patriot, who died on the battlefield fighting for liberty, by singing a song which means the mingling of the praises of those who fired upon the flag with that of the heroes who gave their lives for their country, and they refused to sing.

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  • What are the values and interests inherent in the song "Dixie"?
  • Why might some people, particularly African Americans, object to this song?
  • Are there similar instances today of songs or other types of symbols being contested?
  • How does singing a song such as "Dixie" differ from flying a Confederate flag?
  • Upon what grounds might one defend the singing of "Dixie" or flying of a Confederate flag?
  • What slant did the newspaper take when reporting this event?
  • Does the article represent the thoughts of the children or the writer?
  • What might the students and/or the teacher have done differently?
  • How does this incident regarding the singing of "Dixie" differ from that of the church members asked to sing "America"? What is the difference between the objections to these two songs?
  • What are the expectations of adults in a church and children in a school? How do these expectations impact the significance of the act of singing in these cases?