By Sam Burnham
This past weekend celebrated the one of the greatest of Southern traditions, the running of the 142nd Kentucky Derby.
Leading up to the big day at Churchill Downs, several stories from news outlets, fashion outlets, popular culture outlets, you name it, discussed the various traditions surrounding the "Fastest Two Minutes in Sports".
One story in particular caught my attention. I'm not going to use my Georgian viewpoint to lecture former Kentucky poet laureate on the finer art of being a Kentuckian as I don''t believe myself to be qualified to do so. But I do want to offer a few thoughts on this matter I believe to be pertinent to the experience of all Southerners.
When discussing My Old Kentucky Home, one must start with the origin of the song. Stephen Foster wrote the song somewhere around 1852 as an anti-slavery ballad sung from the point of view of a slave having been sold down the river to work sugar in Louisiana, which was much different than farming anything in Kentucky. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Walker from the article that there was nowhere good to be a slave, I'd assert that there were few places worse than the sugar cane fields of Louisiana. Slaveholders often sold their "problematic" slaves to the sugar plantations where they were doomed to sweat, toil, pestilence, snakes, gators, disease, and likely death. This was a primary example of where families would be split up, likely to never see each other again. It is a terrible and true part of Southern History - a part we must never forget.
One point I do want to make is that the love of home and family knows no race. Slavery was not a good condition for anyone anywhere but for those people separated from their families and the only homes they knew, it is reasonable to expect that someone might long for the days before the separation, especially people who knew no better life. The song, as originally sung, is not that far-fetched.
More importantly, as our present leads us into the future, we must keep in mind the past that got us where we are. And when the passages now considered offensive are removed from the song we have to find the balance between keeping ourselves grounded in fact and coming across as trying to ruin every tradition we come across. My Old Kentucky Home has become a "simple, romantic song of home" and not much more. And that's ok. It's ok because Kentucky may have been built with slave labor but today there is the opportunity for all races to love their Old Kentucky Home. An engineer relocated for employment purposes, a solider on a south Asian battlefield, a missionary in Papua New Guinea, an astronaut orbiting on the International Space Station can all hum the tune, thinking of old times at home and when hard times come knocking at their door, Kentucky is still home and sometimes a romantic thought of home is enough.
The South is not perfect. It's far too diverse to ever be perfect. Our past will probably always haunt us as someone will always be there to remind us of it. But it's our past and our home and in the South, "our" is a much bigger word than it used to be.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire