Reflections on Stephan Foster, the Kentucky Derby, and Racism in Art and Song

Statue of Foster in Pittsburgh is removed. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Here is the latest chapter in public entities stepping up to the ongoing and necessary work of questioning the history we tell through public art — and changing it when necessary.

The city of Pittsburgh just removed an 800-pound bronze statue of songwriter Stephan Foster with a black man sitting at his feet playing the banjo, according to an April 26 story in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

The move fol­lowed an Oc­to­ber de­ci­sion by the Pitts­burgh Art Com­mis­sion, which found that the statue should be re­moved within six months and hosted in a pri­vate, “prop­erly con­tex­tu­alized” lo­ca­tion. Many res­i­dents have held that the sculp­ture — show­ing a shoe­less African-Amer­i­can banjo player seated at the famed com­poser’s feet — is con­de­scend­ing or out­right rac­ist. Speak­ers at com­mis­sion meet­ings last year largely agreed.

These are issues confronting civic leaders around the country, including the recent debate about art in the Minnesota State Capitol which had mixed results.

Time to Change the Kentucky Derby’s Theme Song

In related news about Foster, a piece ran in the Washington Post today headlined: “‘My Old Kentucky Home’: The Kentucky Derby’s beloved, fraught singalong about slavery.”

The story notes how “My Old Kentucky Home” is belted out every year at the Kentucky Derby and it’s likely most people don’t know the origins of Foster’s song; the meaning is as invisible to people as the offensive nature of the Washington Reds*ins mascot. It’s just part of how people grew up, it’s tradition, and they don’t question it. According to the Post:

[The song] is a lament by a slave who has been sold by his master and, bound for the Deep South, must say goodbye to his beloved birthplace. It hints at the brutal mistreatment he faces: “The head must bow and the back will have to bend … In the field where the sugar-canes grow.”

Former Kentucky poet laureate Frank X Walker critiqued the song in an NPR interview cited by the Post:

Walker said that Foster was not a Kentucky native, “so he imagined, or he witnessed something that suggested that [it] was a great place to be a slave. My issue is that there was no good place to be a slave.”

The Kentucky General Assembly passed a 1986 law to change Foster’s original lyrics, “replacing the words ‘darky’ and ‘darkies with ‘people,’” the story said.

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