This week, 150,000 people will gather at Louisville’s Churchill Downs for the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby. Millions more across the country will be watching live when the crowd rises to its feet, roars with excitement and sings the traditional opening song, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Few realize that this nostalgic anthem is about the internal American slave trade, which terrorized generations of parents, children, and siblings — and broke up millions of Black families.
White people and institutions need to hit a hard pause and reflect on the song’s history.
Indeed, for close to two centuries, white America has played the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” to demarcate and police racial boundaries, to feel better about Black pain, to meet its own needs for emotional expression, tradition, even patriotism. In the city where police killed Breonna Taylor in her Kentucky home, white people and institutions need to hit a hard pause and reflect on the song’s history, then consider whether singing it this way is appropriate. We should be guided by Black Americans in Kentucky and beyond, whose views on “My Old Kentucky Home” have been roundly ignored.
The composer and songwriter Stephen Foster, a white Pittsburgher, wrote the 1853 melody, which blackface minstrels made into a hit. The opening phrases use a word we now consider a slur to describe the main characters: “The sun shines bright in the Old Kentucky home / ‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay.” Enslaved people are shown enjoying the stereotyped humble pleasures of possum hunting and moonlit jam sessions. But then, the song goes on, “Hard Times comes a knocking at the door,” and destruction follows. “The Darkies have to part” because one of them is being sold down river to the Deep South, to die in a sugarcane field, never again to see his family. Such is the fate of enslaved Black people, according to the fatalistic lyrics: “The head must bow and the back will have to bend / Wherever the darky may go.”
The plot echoes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling abolitionist novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), but Foster was no abolitionist. He needed to sell, and he succeeded by fusing a song of home with blackface, the most popular entertainment of his time.
Nostalgia for life on any plantation (the refrain calls on us to “sing one song for the old Kentucky home”) was an emotion unique to white America. As one Black newspaper in Kansas reminded readers in 1900, “We have long thought there has been a little too much bragging about the joys of the old Kentucky home.”
White people were captivated by the “dream of a happy past” that “My Old Kentucky Home” evoked for them.
For white listeners, though, it offered a soothing tonic, and for many, still does. So soothing that in 1921 civic and business leaders decided to use the tune to lure visitors and enhance Kentucky’s image. The melody sounded notes that were personal (“My”), reassuring (“Old”), exotic (“Kentucky”), and universal (“Home”). Amid mass immigration, industrial strife, women’s suffrage, world war and racial unrest, it evoked a genteel-sounding, rural past where everyone knew their place.
White people were captivated by the “dream of a happy past” that “My Old Kentucky Home” evoked for them. The song became a symbol of Kentucky tradition, culture and pride. A defeated planter class had attained “Lost Cause” nobility built on false memories of benign, even benevolent, chattel slavery, and in 1923 the state purchased a big brick house called Federal Hill forty miles south of Louisville and christened it The Old Kentucky Home.
The only dwelling mentioned in “My Old Kentucky Home” is a slave cabin, and no shred of evidence connects Foster or his song directly to the site. Yet millions of schoolchildren and tourists from all over the world have strolled through Federal Hill’s spacious rooms. On this hallowed ground, they were told, Foster penned the beloved melody. One promoter called it “the happy home of slavery.” Another fan from across the Atlantic (Foster’s music circled the globe) said the tune described “a happy home that can never be destroyed.” It was all a lie, pure promotional propaganda, and seven years later those in charge at Churchill Downs officially embraced it.
It was all a lie, pure promotional propaganda.
Corrupt mythmaking is not unique to Kentucky. “My Old Kentucky Home” is not history or even memory, but rather entertainment that normalized racial hierarchy. It has allowed its singers to view human bondage as picturesque and people held against their will as docile. From the 1870s into the Civil Rights era, Black performers everywhere were expected to deliver its soothing tonic, as when Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, acting the role of a butler, whistles “My Old Kentucky Home” to distract a pouting Shirley Temple from her troubles in “The Little Colonel” (1935).
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When 20th-century superstar singers Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson began dropping “darkies” from their renditions, many whites responded as though something holy were being desecrated. In 1972, after decades of objections from the NAACP, the slur one step removed from the N-word disappeared from the Kentucky Derby program. From then on, crowds would sing a new line, “Tis summer, the people are gay.”
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“Any good man will cloud up when they play ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ the legendary sportswriter Frank DeFord once wrote, “and cry outright when he realizes he is standing in one of those rare places where beauty and history bisect for an instant.”
DeFord captured an experience that Churchill Downs has distilled for millions and is reluctant to give up. But whose beauty, whose history, does the song invoke? Simply removing “darkies” does not change its loaded meaning — or the appropriateness of singing about the atrocities of slavery at a modern sporting event. As Lonnie Ali told me about her husband, Kentucky’s greatest sports hero, “I never heard Muhammad sing that song, ever.” Ali’s friend Bob Coleman was blunter: “It’s a white song. It’s your song.”
It was my song. For most of my life “My Old Kentucky Home” had the power to make me “cloud up” or weep “outright.” As this nation struggles with the shared legacy of its racist culture, white Americans must leave this song to Black Americans to do with as they please. The pain at the core of a song about a man sold for cash and sent away from his family to die deserves neither nostalgia nor celebration. “My Old Kentucky Home” isn’t mine anymore.