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English Rugby team dishonors black history

Tue, Apr 11th 2017 10:00 pm
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"Swing low, sweet chariot, / Coming for to carry me home. / Swing low, sweet chariot, / Coming for to carry me home ..."

When you hear these lyrics, what is the first thing you think of? For some, they are immediately taken back to church and others back to fifth grade. You may be wondering why fifth grade and I'll give you a hint: the curriculum. In fifth grade, I had units in social studies which tied into the stories being read for English. One of these topics was slavery in America. For reading, we would listen to a recording of the story and have to follow along. In this unit "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and other slave spirituals were sung in the background as the story told of the struggles and hardships African-American people faced as the backbone of America.

This is what I think of when I hear those lyrics but if I lived in England or were a big rugby fan that might be different. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" has been adopted by England's National Rugby Union team as a motivational chant at matches. Let's just say I do not see the connection. Why is a slave spiritual being sung as a bunch of white men try to break each other's bones over a hybrid soccer/football?

If you decipher the lyrics of this hauntingly beautiful song you'll know the reason why whenever many people hear it, it gives people goosebumps: "I looked over Jordan, what do I see, / Coming for to carry me home. / A band of angels coming after me, / Coming for to carry me home."

It doesn't take much to figure out that the song is talking about the passage from the land of the living to that of the dead.

It literally says that a flock of angels is coming to carry the singer home, in other words, heaven. Now don't get me wrong, it's far from being a depressing song but the reason for that is the fact that for many slaves death was the only escape they had from the living hell they were innocently born into.

It baffles me and I'm sure many others, as to how this "tradition" (The reason that I placed "tradition" in quotation marks is because the singing of this song at an English rugby match will never be older than the original singing of this song by slaves whether it was at one of the frequent funerals or in communicating that a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad would be arriving soon to lead them to freedom) ever became associated with the rugby team, so much so that it is considered its anthem.

According to The New York Times, the first time English fans sang this on a large scale was March 19, 1988 after England was able to comeback and earn an apparently astounding victory over Ireland. The supposed reason why this was chosen was that year England had its first black player, Chris Oti, on the roster and he had made undeniably irreplaceable contributions to helping the team win. You know what was also undeniable? The racist sentiment behind singing  this song.

Two years after the song was first sung as a chant The Independent designated an edition of its mail-in reader question-and-answer column to the chant and how it came to be adopted by English rugby fans. According to The New York Times, the responses were as follows: "It was often sung by a white crowd when black players were playing well — a backhanded compliment in my view" and "[It's] slightly racist but in the best possible taste."

I don't care what you're talking about or who you're talking to, but if you say something is racist it is wrong. There is no good taste or bad taste in racism. I was watching a video interview about this controversy recently  on CNN Sports and one of the fans said, "Things come from so many different angles and times so things change over the years. So I would say that what it represents now is not the same thing it represented back then and this is more about a song that is sung to build team spirits."

This fan was a white woman and she basically said "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" which was passed down orally through generations of slaves both Native American and African-American is no longer connected with the heartbreak and bloodshed of the past alive and well in American society.

This spiritual has always been associated with escaping torment and apparently no longer holds that meaning because white rugby team and fan base in England say so even when the reason this cultural appropriation began was racism. So as the descendants of slaves whose great-great-grandparents had to live through all the atrocities and injustices of being treated less than animals in America still hold this spiritual to represent this period of time, white people living in England say no it is all fun and rugby so we can keep singing it.

The reason this is coming back into the spotlight right now is because of the influx of scholars and prestigious academic professionals in African-American history speaking out against the use of this as a sports anthem.  

Looking at pictures of privileged white people shoving corn dogs and french fries down their throats as they get all hyped up to sing one of their favorite sports anthem which is rooted in the torture and torment of an entire demographic of people upsets me to no end and I am not a person of color. I can't even imagine visiting England and sitting in the stands at a rugby game as a Black American and then having the balding white dude next to me start singing the song sung at my great-grandfather's funeral.

What's perhaps even more telling about the overall perpetuation and normalization of acts of cultural appropriation and racial discrimination is that many people of color who read this article will not be surprised. They'll read, maybe shake their head in disappointment or think; 'yep here's another one, another instance where white people don't understand what the frick they're talking about' and go on with their days. For me, as a white person, I'm not faced with blatant discrimination on a daily basis so when I hear or see these things I lose it every time because I absolutely despise that this is still an issue. It's still an issue because of ignorant people with the same skin color as mine: white.



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