This perennially favorite old song’s lyrics have been updated over the years. The longer, original lyrics, written in 1853, were about the dismal lives of Kentucky slaves, and the hundreds of years of degradation and loss suffered by generations of enslaved Africans. The updated lyrics shown here omit that troubling, though historically accurate language.
I bring this up because many old songs, books, movies and other materials and media have racist content that should be noted and dealt with, like the racist imagery and messages recently found in the tales written by Dr. Seuss, the historically quite accurate books of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and some of the once-delightful old animated movies from Disney. Historically racist content that reinforces the superiority of one group over another actually provides powerful opportunities to have thoughtful conversations with our children and friends. While providing views of how ugliness in the U.S. was once acceptable, classic songs, books, movies and more provide a platform for children to learn that things can and do get better over time, if we face them for what they are and decide to make them better.
Developing perspective around issues like racism and inequality are critical for our children if they are to grow up be be comfortable in engaging in their community’s conversations reckoning with these enduring issues. One way we can do that is by seeking out more diversity in the content we encourage our kids to consume and engaging in dialogue with them that leads to action toward improving their worlds each day forward. We can do that by seeking out books in which children of all ethnicities see themselves as valued members of a global society. Parents and teachers can do that best and most comfortably by gently confronting and discussing any racial, economic, or cultural biases we encounter when reading with our kids.