Florida, My Florida. Citizens Wish to Change Their Racist Tune


© copyright 2007 Betsy L. Angert

This morning, as I rose, I was reminded, of racism and how prevalent it is in America.  I have been aware of this all of my life.  My own history made me more familiar with what life must be like to be Black and live in America.  I do not envy the experiences of those that are told in America “We are all created equal”; yet, they know, with each breath they are not considered so by the dominant white culture.  As I listened to the radio, I learned signs of the Confederacy, principles associated with the Slave States live large in this nation, specifically, in Florida. I had no doubt.  Since moving here, each day, I am astounded. 

In recent years, Left leaning liberals from the North East are flocking to this Southern region.  They stay here not only for the summers; they relocate permanently.  Bleeding heart liberals live in Florida throughout the year.  Yet, the laws in this state remain “Right.”  In recent weeks a discussion began again.  The Florida State Song is a reminder of the past.  Slavery is glorified in the Stephen Foster tune, “Old Folks at Home,” also more familiarly known as Suwannee River.  The time has come for the tune to change.  However, there may be little support for the idea.  Racism is rampant in the Southern States.  In many ways, the Civil War and slavery live on in America.

In January 2001,

About 1,500 members and supporters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, many dressed in Civil War-era costumes, marched a half-mile to the state Capitol Saturday to voice their support for the flying of the Georgia [State] flag.

This banner featured the Confederate symbol, long associated with the advocacy of slavery.  Tens of thousands, of signatures were gather on a petition.  Many Georgians wished to retain this racist representation on their flag.

In June of 2005, the entire country confronted its fatal flaw.  The United Sates had never banned lynching.  Thus, only two short years ago, Americans officially and belatedly stated their regret for a documented 4742 lynchings.  They apologized for their delayed response to a racist reality.  The Senate finally, after decades of trial and tribulation and much deliberation abolished laws that allowed for legal lynchings. America apologized to its Black citizens, not just for offenses in the South.

[T]here were lynchings in the North and West.  In fact, every state in the continental United States with the exception of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont has had lynching casualties.

The causes assigned by whites in justification or explanation of lynching Black people include everything from major crimes to minor offenses. In many cases, Blacks were lynched for no reason at all other than race prejudice.

Racism permeates the American countryside.  The North is not exempt.  In February, 2007, in what might be considered the most cosmopolitan or  most civilized city in the United States, New York City, racial bigotry dominates the day.  Lynching may no longer be legal; however, the use of hurtful terms rules the day.

A city councilman says he hears it over and over on the streets of New York City: young people casually addressing each other using a racial slur that has a painful history intertwined with slavery.

“You hear it 10 times within two minutes,” says Councilman Leroy Comrie.

On Wednesday, Comrie will urge the council to approve a symbolic resolution calling for New Yorkers to voluntarily stop using the N-word. The effort began weeks ago at the start of Black History Month, and has gradually gained nationwide notice and support.

Comrie and other backers of the nonbinding measure say its purpose is to call attention to what they say is a troubling trend among entertainers and youths to try to repackage the N-word as a term of endearment and camaraderie.

Hip-hop artists in particular have been singled out for weaving the term into music and entertainment, which some say waters it down and convinces younger audiences that the word is acceptable.

Some argue that doing so is empowering, and that reclaiming a slur and giving it a new meaning takes away its punch.

Comrie disagrees, saying it is impossible to paper over the N-word’s long and hurtful history.

“This was derived solely from hate and anger, and you just can’t recreate it,” Comrie said.

The word has received increased attention since the incident last year in which actor Michael Richards, who played the nutty Kramer on “Seinfeld,” used the word while blowing up at audience members during a standup routine. Richards later apologized and said that the outburst was motivated by anger, not racism.

I wonder.  It is all so confusing to me; it appears prejudice never truly dies.  People hold on to their traditions, even if, or perchance especially if they reflect a deeply engrained bias.  Perhaps, we as a whole must examine our intent, our interests, and the implications of these.

Today, Florida is.  Citizens are considering their State Song.  This is not the first time in the last seventy years that Florida residents have proposed adopting a new State song.

At least twice in the past 20 years there were serious efforts to replace “Old Folks at Home.”  In 1988, former Rep. Rick Dantzler tried it, met with resistance, and shifted his effort to adopting another song in addition to the old tune.  It failed.

In 1997, former Rep. Willie Logan, of Opa Locka, tried again.  Resistance came from a lawmaker, Randy Mackey, whose district included parts of the Suwannee River.  Again, the effort failed.

The song gets credit as the foundation for Florida’s tourism industry, as people worldwide came to look for the idyllic home Foster described on the river’s banks.  But just because it’s part of state history doesn’t mean it should represent Florida today, said Dantzler, who now works as a lawyer in Winter Haven.

There are other problems with the song, especially if you live in South Florida and don’t feel connected to a tribute for a river that flows hundreds of miles away, through North Florida.  It doesn’t say much about the state, because Foster never saw it.

Stephen Foster never stepped foot in the state of Florida; yet some Floridians are choosing to honor his memory more than the actual state, or the state of affairs that our fore-fathers meant to promote, equality for all.

Floridians that support the change are realizing this harmony leads to divisiveness.  Jacksonville, Democratic Senator, Tony Hill is working to “retire” the song.  Hill states the lyrics are “loaded with derogatory language.”  The newly elected Governor Charlie Crist refused to have this anthem played at his own inaugural.  Crist mentioned to Senator Hill, that tune would never be played in his presence.  However, he explained the final decision is not his to make.  Governor Crist proclaimed, “Whatever the people decide is fine with me.”

“Old Folks At Home” was meant to be an homage to the Suwannee River; yet, it slights more than it honors.

Is a state song really representing Florida if:

  • The lyrics officially adopted seven decades ago are no longer used because they’re widely viewed as racist?
  • The songwriter is from Pittsburgh?  And never visited Florida?
  • The best known line, “Way down upon the Swanee River,” misspells Suwannee River, the song’s sole reference to Florida?
  • The new governor, wary of the racial fuss the song stirs up, axes it from his inauguration ceremony?
  • In addition to these interesting facts, this song was not the original State hymn.  As we review the lyrics, we wonder why this tune was ever adopted.

    Way down upon de Swanee ribber,
    Far, far away,
    Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber,
    Dere’s wha de old folks stay.
    All up and down de whole creation
    Sadly I roam,
    Still longing for de old plantation
    And for de old folks at home.

    Chorus

    All de world am sad and dreary,
    Ebry where I roam,
    Oh! darkeys how my heart grows weary,
    Far from de old folks at home.

    2nd verse

    All round de little farm I wandered
    When I was young,
    Den many happy days I squandered,
    Many de songs I sung.
    When I was playing wid my brudder
    Happy was I
    Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
    Dere let me live and die.

    Chorus

    3rd verse

    One little hut amond de bushes,
    One dat I love,
    Still sadly to my mem’ry rushes,
    No matter where I rove
    When will I see de bees a humming
    All round de comb?
    When will I hear de banjo tumming
    Down in my good old home?

    References to slavery and questionably racist terms filter through this Stephen Foster tune.  The lyrics  accentuate an implied ignorance on the part of the slave singer.  The chorus suggests that the ol’ darkey longs for a home back on the plantation.  Could such a silliness ever be true.  It certainly is not a concept current Floridians wish to embrace.  The idea of enslaving equals is loathsome to those living in this state.  Yet, still, many young Florida school children learn this tune.

    One wonders; did those in the past ever truly imagine that people would purposely chose a life of bondage.  Nevertheless, this song stands on the books as the State tune.  Perhaps people did not notice or think through the repercussions.  What we believe we will conceive.  Citizens of Florida do not wish to give rise to greater oppression, or so the organizers of this campaign hope and believe.

    They ask the residents of this state to consider, this melody was adopted to represent the “land covered with flowers” in 1935, decades after Florida, My Florida was chosen.  This song has a history that few would wish to be associated with.

    After it was written, a blackface minstrel performance group called Christy’s Minstrels paid Foster a large sum of money to gain the rights to the song, and they performed the song in blackface for the entertainment of racist white audiences.

    It is time for a change.  The legacy of bigotry has not left this State as of yet.  Racism will reign as long as we subconsciously support it in our State song. 

    Some say, in 2007, we live in a colorblind society.  Oh, were that true.  I ask you, dear reader to consider my own experience.

    I moved to Florida just over a year ago.  Immediately, I was struck; racism not only survives here, it is strong!  Oddly enough, there is a large dark skinned population here.  In South Florida, I encounter more Black persons daily than I ever did in all of the decades I lived in California.  I have long believed, to know people is to love them; thus, my confusion. 

    Much of bigotry is fear of the unknown.  Differences cause anxiety for some.  There is ample opportunity to become closely acquainted with African Americans in Florida.  I was in this region for a very short time before I began to understand.  All of my life, while out and about, I chat with everyone.  No man or woman is a stranger, unless you choose not to speak to him or her.  Here, in Florida, when attempting to converse with many Black store employees, I experienced an astounding reluctance on their part to engage.  I wondered; was management punitive or were there other reasons for this distant demeanor.

    Could cultural differences between the North and the South explain what I observed.  This seemed strange for Southerners are considered friendlier.  Granted, many individuals from Northern territories migrate to the South, still . . .

    I purchased a home that needed some work.  I hired master craftsmen to assist me.  In my interactions with them, I received enlightenment.

    Tony, a tall and wise man.  He worked in my home daily for three weeks.  His work was exemplary; his tales extraordinarily interesting.  Tony’s insights helped me to understand what was unimaginable to me.  I was speaking of my many observations here in Florida.  Racism is among many issues that I think disquieting.

    Tony shared a story or two.  This intelligent and well-spoken man felt a need to supplement his income. In a Right-to-Work state, such as Florida, there is ample reason to have more than one job.  The Economic Policy Institute states. . .

    We find that the mean effect of working in a right-to-work state results in a 6% to 8% reduction in wages for workers in these states, with an average wage penalty of 6.5%.

    However, I digress.  That discussion will wait for now.

    Tony told tales of working as a delivery truck driver for a large national chain of home improvement and major appliance retail stores.  Often, he was scheduled to transport washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, and other domestic devices that typically are considered essential for living.

    Upon arrival, a homeowner who may have opened the guard gate for this eloquently speaking man, closed the front door when they actually saw Tony.  His skin was dark, the purplish Black color that glistens in the light.  Tony saw many a curtain drawn as the van approached a house.

    Knowing that a homeowner was within, for he had spoken to them on the telephone or through the intercom moments earlier, Tony would exit the truck and walk up to the home. Gently, as is Tony’s nature, he would knock.  On the rare occasion, he received a reply, people would state they no longer needed the delivery.  Bewildered and not, Tony would turn and return to the warehouse.

    Supervisors, back at the store, stated the customer called.  They want their merchandise delivered immediately; however, they want a white worker to do the deed.  Tony was allowed to “drop” off the appliances at one locale.  Literally, he was told to leave the cargo in the driveway, near the sidewalk.  The homeowner would find a way to bring the freight into the house and hook it up.  Contractual guarantees for workmanship mattered little to these chauvinists.  Their fear and assumptions lived large.

    On this same occasion, where Tony was told to leave the goods and forget the services, he was confronted with further humiliation.  Tony knew that he must obtain the homeowner’s signature confirming that he had received the appliances.  Tony handed the property-owner his pen.  The man refused to touch the writing utensil Tony presented.  He dashed into the house and retrieved his own ballpoint.  Tony offered his hand, a habitual salutation; however, he knew.  He watched as the chap quickly turned, seemingly afraid to be seen with the likes of Tony.

    How sad.  Tony is terrific!  This gentle giant is well read, informed, intelligent, and kind.  The quality of his work is as wondrous as he is as a person.  Nevertheless, in Florida today, he remains separate, equal only in words.  The truth of his predicament is not unique here in the south.  The longer I live here the more I learn.  I am deeply disturbed.  Stephen Collins Foster may have been a great composer of music.  It is said that the musician was a man with a mission.  He hoped to reduce racism.

    Rather than writing nostalgically for an old South (it was, after all, the present day for him), or trivializing the hardships of slavery, Foster sought to humanize the characters in his songs, to have them care for one another, and to convey a sense that all people–regardless of their ethnic identities or social and economic class–share the same longings and needs for family and home.  He instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them.  In his own words, he sought to “build up taste…among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order.”  Stephen Foster was a man with a mission, to reform black-face minstrelsy, then the most pervasive and powerful force in American popular culture.

    While this may be true, some thoughts were lost in the translation of this tune.  Perhaps we might honor the original intent of this anthem, the artiste that created it, and the State that sings this tune. 

    Might we each sign the petition and work to embrace a truer tribute to the Sunshine State.  May we choose a song that represents every region of this beautiful state and all those that reside here.  Possibly, if Florida decides to sing another tune, other states will join in.  Harmony might become more real than racism.  We can only act on our stated principles, separate our selves from ancient prejudices, and hope others will as well.

    Floridians sing for their favorite state . . .

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    Saturday, June 11, 2005; Page A01

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