Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision Making
Some of the songs in this collection contain dialects, derogatory terms, and ethnic stereotypes revealing prominent racial attitudes in nineteenth-century American culture. While these lyrics may be offensive by contemporary standards, they provide an opportunity to objectively investigate and discuss racial intolerance in both historic and contemporary culture. For example, a search on the term, nigger, yields hundreds of songs using the term in a variety of contexts. " Mary and Sambo" offers an ugly account of an interracial romance and the unwritten social rules of race relations. The budding romance of the title ends after the suitor is threatened by Mary's father.
I knew a white gal of sweet sixteen,
As near as I can figure,
Who slighted all her dashing beaux--
And fell in love with a nigger.
The blackest kind of a nigger,
A dreadful ugly nigger;
A sleepy, lazy, dirty, crazy,--
Cotton picking nigger.
First Verse of "Mary and Sambo."
He knelt at Mary's father's feet,
And said he would resign her,
That she could marry when she pleased,
And he would marry Dinah.
The prudent cautious nigger,
The compromising nigger,
The point he saw of social law.
That "nig" must marry nigger
Final Verse of "Mary and Sambo."
- How do these songs depict African Americans?
- What do you think that these types of songs imply about the racial and social hierarchy of nineteenth-century America?
- Who does the song blame for the interracial romance? Why?
- What does the song mean by "the point . . . of social law"?
- How do you think that a contemporary audience would respond to this song?
Meanwhile, minstrel songs such as " Pompey Moore," questions the notion of racial equality:
"You may talk and you may write, / You may work and you may fight, / But what good does eber arise? / You may paint and you may rub, / You may wash and you may scrub, / But a nigger is a nigger till he dies!" These types of minstrel songs were generally performed on a minstrel stage by white men donning makeup to appear as though they were black.
A search on dialectical phrases such as bobolition and mancipation, highlights other minstrel songs such as " Young Eph's Lament," in which the narrator questions his fate just prior to the Civil War:
Oh, where will I go if dis war breaks de country up, / And de dar-keys hab to scat-ter a-round, / Dis bob-o-li-tion, man-ci-pa-tion and se-ses-sion / Am a gwine to run de nig-ger in de ground!...
- How does the use of dialect in the minstrel shows reinforce racial stereotypes?
- What indication is there that dialects on the minstrel stage not only mimic the language of African Americans but are also used for satirical purposes?
- How do you think that the purpose of the dialect is influenced by its context, such as the presentation of a song by a white man donning blackface on a minstrel stage?
- How do you think that a modern audience might respond to such songs?
- Can you name some contemporary forms of expression or popular culture in which racial terms and depictions are acceptable?
- Why do you think that such forms of expression provide a context in which these sentiments are acceptable?
- How do people respond to these contemporary expressions?
- How do people often respond to older works such as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn?
- Do you think that any of these materials are acceptable for a classroom discussion? If so, which ones?
- How do you determine the context and material in which such language is acceptable?
- How do you respond to materials that are deemed unacceptable?