Well, it finally happened. Earlier today, the University of Mississippi Athletics Department got a jump on the college football season by banning “Dixie” from all athletic events. This is a story I’ve been following for years, as it was a major part of my chapter on memory in Battle Hymns. The controversy at Ole Miss is a perfect example of how difficult, even impossible, it is to separate Confederate symbols from their white supremacist legacy (the flag being the other prominent example). The song’s author, Daniel Decatur Emmett, never intended “Dixie” to be the anthem of a pro-slavery southern state, but Confederates imprinted that meaning on the song and white supremacists reinforced it for decades after, giving “Dixie” a permanent subtext odious to most people. The Civil War generation left their mark on numerous songs (the multiple lyrics and associations given to the melody for “John Brown’s Body” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is the northern equivalent) and we can’t help but hear those songs the way they did. “Dixie” is no exception. For years, Ole Miss tried to dilute that context by pairing “Dixie” with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” but these efforts ultimately failed, as audiences made the song’s pro-Confederate associations explicit by chanting “The South shall rise again” over the “Battle’s Hymn’s” “His truth is marching on.”
Of course, even without its Civil War context, “Dixie” would be a problematic song for a university band to play. While it wasn’t originally meant to be a symbol of a pro-slavery rebellion, the song was nevertheless part of the minstrel tradition—a genre with white supremacy at its core. As I wrote for We’re History, Emmett was one of the founders of minstrelsy and his legacy is complicated by the genre’s implied ideology. Scholars, like Eric Lott, have demonstrated minstrel shows were often used to smuggle in criticisms of the elite class, but that doesn’t negate its primary component: mocking African Americans for their supposed cultural and intellectual inferiority. This presents problems outside of Ole Miss, as we have to consider the continued usage and historical context of other still-prominent minstrel songs, like Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susannah” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
I went to grad school at The University of Alabama, and the band there plays snippets of “Oh Susannah” during one of our main cheers. That song’s content really isn’t much different from “Dixie,” but Foster’s tune benefits from never having been appropriated by the Confederacy or white supremacist groups. What’s more, Alabama fans don’t treat the song with the same reverence Ole Miss fans do with “Dixie.” No one stand up and puts their hands over their hearts when its played. Nevertheless, reckoning with the racist history and content of these songs is part of reckoning with America’s racist past. I don’t know if calling for a ban of all minstrel songs in official settings is the right answer, but “Dixie” seems like an obvious choice for removal by a modern university with a significant African American population. Its selection by the band was not an innocent one and, like many Confederate symbols still in use, was revived in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Tradition is great, but time does not always erase the problematic roots of some traditions, so kudos to Ole Miss for finally dropping this one.
PS – Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Lots going on the last few weeks. I have another review almost ready to go, so we’ll get back in the swing of things soon.