The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, December 31, 2003

US history textbooks fantasise over World War 2

All those jokes that the poor old Japs have had to put up with about the fairy-stories in their history textbooks would, in an ideal world, fuel a considerable blowback for Uncle Sam...

Via the excellent Tongue Tied [1], a piece from the Palm Beach Post (undated!) places a WW2 veteran and literature professor Dr Porter Crow in front of a pile of history textbooks to check his experience with what the books say: he's not impressed.

For instance,
"All shared equally the risks of battle," it says of blacks and whites in the "A World Conflict" chapter of the Prentice Hall textbook used by Palm Beach County's 11th-grade honors students.

It's a flat lie, of course - the US fighting forces were segregated like to Mississippi standard, and combat casualties were vastly disproportionately suffered by whites. The fact that Crow was - well, Jim Crowed didn't stop him getting into action when the Japs came to call, but his job was minding the fuel dump.

Textbooks are also, it seems, unwilling to suggest that the attack on Pearl Harbor was in any way unsporting:
One text used in high schools says that on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan "declared war" on the United States.

Well up to Enron standard.

If this is what they do to WW2, how do the textbooks tackle slavery and the Civil War? Cold Mountain can manage silently to exculpate the South by fantasy off-screen manumission; but how do you tell the story of slavery without mentioning the disagreeable practice of - well, slavery?

African-Americans all work on the Mississippi
as Oscar Hammerstein most assuredly did not write [2]!

  1. Find on war - no permalinks, for some unknown reason.

  2. It was
    Niggers all work on the Mississippi
    of course. Not sung that way since well before the afore-mentioned World War 2, I suspect.

    According to an article Frank Sinatra and the American Presidency in Popular Music and Society

    On stage and in the recording studio, he changed the opening lines of "Old Man River" from "Niggers all work on the Mississippi" (or even "Darkies all work," which lyricist Oscar Hammerstein had substituted) to "Here we all work".
    There's a Yale Law Review piece from 1999 (PDF) which considers this sort of monkeying around with artistic texts more generally, in order to make points about interpreting the US Constitution.


The Yale Law Review piece (p2n) has further intelligence on Old Man River:

Paul Robeson, one of whose signature songs was “Ol’ Man River,” changed the lyrics in significant ways. When Robeson first began to perform Hammerstein’s and Kern’s Showboat in 1928, he sang the lyrics as written, including the line “Niggers all work on the Mississippi.” By the early 1930s, he changed the key word to “Darkies,” and, when he filmed the movie in 1935, he substituted “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi; that’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.” He also changed the line “I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin’” to “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’.” See MARTIN BAUML DUBERMAN, PAUL ROBESON 604-05 n.14 (1988).

Apparently, Showboat’s original lyricist was not amused. “In regard to Robeson’s changes in his lyrics,” Duberman writes, “Oscar Hammerstein II is quoted as saying, ‘As the author of these words, I have no intention of changing them or permitting anyone else to change them. I further suggest that Paul write his own songs and leave mine alone’.” Id. (quoting NEW YORK AGE, June 18, 1949). Nevertheless, Robeson has become so identified with the song over the years that one might well ask whether a truly “authentic” performance of “Ol’ Man River” is one using Robeson’s lyrics or Hammerstein’s. As we explain in this essay, it all depends on what one means by authenticity.

Interestingly, one of Robeson’s attempts at making Hammerstein’s lyrics less overtly racist backfired when he performed it in London; and it demonstrates how important audience response is to the political meaning of lyrics, whatever the author’s asserted intentions. Robeson changed the line “You get a little drunk and you land in jail,” which played to racist stereotypes, to the more defiant “You show a little spunk and you land in jail.” In New York, this line had been greeted with great applause, but it was met with “dead silence” in London. As Duberman reports, “Robeson later learned that to the English ‘spunk’ meant semen, and promptly changed the line again, substituting ‘grit’.” Id.

There are three movie versions of Show Boat: the 1929 was a silent with added musical scenes - apparently, Jules Bledsoe singing Old Man River is lost. Robeson appeared in the 1936 version - quite what lyrics were sung, I have no idea.

Among the PC alterations made, and not made, that are discussed in the Yale Law Review piece (all with the purpose of providing analogies for legal interpretation) are
  • Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (Ko-Ko's nigger serenader and the Mikado's lady who dyes a chemical yellow [who] Is blacked like a nigger/With permanent walnut juice.) - both bowdlerised, at the very least;

  • the hymn Lord of the Dance (supposedly antisemitic, but left untouched);

  • the Bach St John Passion (ditto and ditto); and

  • a motet by Antoine Busnoys, a musician at the court of Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy. Included in the text is
    Credendum est magis soli Marie veraci
    quam Judeorum turbe fallaci
    which translates as
    More trust is to be put in honest Mary alone than in the lying crowd of Jews
    (sung as written).

In order to escape bowdlerisation, it seems, text had better be
  • in a dead language; or, failing that,

  • in a language foreign to most listeners; and

  • in a work by a serious artist, rather than a mere entertainment.

But what about, say, To Kill A Mockingbird - the Columbus East High School (December 5) stage production was cancelled (a replacement staged reading is still on for late January, last time I looked), but the piece is regularly performed on stage. Scarcely in the Bach league, artistically; and including several uses of the most conniption-inducing word in the (so-called) Land of the Free.

If Harper Lee gets to keep her niggers, why not WS Gilbert? The 'Bird uses the word in a context of racial hostility (pondering who is, what is a nigger-lover, exactly) whereas The Mikado certainly doesn't.

nigger serenader
is almost certainly white - beneath the burnt cork - though Negroes certainly performed in blackface [1]. And, in context, the reference to
the others of his race
means other serenaders.)

Of course, I'm not looking for logic in such a tricky business, just trying to tease out some of the motivations.

  1. The writer-performer of one of the most popular of the coon songs - All Coons Look Alike To Me was a Negro, Ernest Hogan. I have in mind - no source! - that Hogan was one of the first writers of any race to insist on taking a royalty from the song, rather than selling it outright, and thereby made a mint out of it...

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