The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #86330   Message #1604710
Posted By: Cool Beans
14-Nov-05 - 12:32 PM
Thread Name: PC-Where is thy sting?-'Pick a Bale of Cotton' Ban
Subject: Folklore: Ban 'Pick a Bale of Cotton'?
Should "Pick a Bale of Cotton" be banned from a middle school concert? Here's a story from the Nov. 14 Detroit News:
    OAK PARK -- China Montgomery simply wants to sing. It is her first love, not including math and Barbie dolls.
But when the Anderson Middle School student showed her parents the lyrics to a song her school choir is scheduled to sing in a concert Wednesday, they were appalled.

The title: "Pick a Bale of Cotton."

To China's parents, the song glorifies slavery in a shameful era of U.S. history. It is called an "American folk song" on the music sheet the children are learning.

Greg Montgomery, China's father, is African-American. He appealed to everyone from the school's principal to the superintendent of the Berkley School District to pull the song from the concert. The school is mostly white.

There are several versions of the song, including at least one with a racial slur repeated twice in one verse. The slur does not appear in the version the 30 choir students -- six of them African-American -- were asked to sing.

When Montgomery's pleas to pull the song from the concert were met with what he described as resistance, he decided to remove his daughter, 11, from the concert.

"We just buried Mother Parks, and this is happening only a few weeks later," he said. "It's mind-boggling that people don't understand sensitive issues.

"When I told my 81-year-old Aunt Minnie Ridout, she told me to tell the school administrators to come see her back," Montgomery said. Her back is still affected by the countless hours she spent bending to pick cotton as a girl, he said.

"She said she was not jumping around and singing while she was picking cotton in Alabama and the Mississippi Delta as a young girl."

The school principal, Steve Frank, was not available to comment. The vice principal, Jim Cowdry, said he only knew "bits and pieces" of the issue and deferred to Superintendent Nancy Campbell, who deferred to Gwen Ahern, communications supervisor for the Berkley School District.

"We used to sing that song when I was in school during the '50s," she said. "It's like a Southern type of folk song. I remember it being perky. It was more of a song that people just sang for fun."

Ahern then proceeded to sing the song over the telephone.

"This is going to be a folk music concert, and children will be performing songs from Germany, England, Mexico and other places."

Asked if she knew about the Montgomerys' concerns, Ahern said yes. "As far as I know, they're going ahead with the concert," she said. She added that district officials will study the origins of the song.

The children will be singing, in part, "Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton. Gotta jump down, turn around, Oh Lordie, pick a bale a day."

Dr. Eugene Rogers, president of the North Oakland County NAACP, called the situation unbelievable.

"Some people think they should be able to do anything, and we should be able to adjust and not take it personally," he said. "But I've lived through all of this, and I'm still living through it."

Rogers said it is insensitive to proceed with the song. "People shouldn't have to be subjected to this, especially our children."

Geena Guice, a Wayne County psychotherapist who works with African-American children on issues including self-esteem, said the song perpetuates the stereotype of the happy black slave.

"I am shocked that educators of our children would have so little concern about cultural diversity or support for a developing adolescent's self-image."

Guice said being asked to sing a cheerful song about slavery marginalizes a black child. "It singles her out in a derogatory manner, and would definitely challenge her identity development and self-esteem."

China said she'd never heard the song before her class started learning it. But it didn't take long for her to figure out what the song is about.

"The first day that we got it, I didn't understand that it was a bad song, but about two or three days later I finally understood what the words meant," China said. "I understood that it wasn't a nice song to sing because it's talking about African-American people.

"They were bringing back the memories of how African-Americans picked cotton, and it wasn't a good memory. It was disrespectful to African-Americans."

Later Friday, Ahern said she spoke with the superintendent and assistant superintendent.

"We're going to investigate the origin of the song to see what the climate was at that time," she said. "We want to see if it was uplifting or derogatory, and then we'll decide."

Asked if she knew there was a version with a racial slur, Ahern said yes.

"It's been an American folk song forever," she said, "and it's been sung in schools forever."