Old Black Joe

When I went to school, I was the only black kid in my class for 6.5 of the first 7 years. My neighborhood was primary Slavic- Russian, Czech, Polish, Ukrainian. I had halupki long before I ever had grits or collards.

At school, we had music class every day with Mrs. Joseph, starting in 4th grade. We used what I knew then was an ancient music book. The songs included A Capital Ship, La Paloma, Rule Britannia, and Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean. I did not know we sang so many seaworthy tunes.

There was also Hail Columbia, Kookaburra, Goober Peas, and The Yellow Rose of Texas, among others.

Then there was Shortnin’ Bread. I HATED Shortnin’ Bread, not so much for what it was, as much as the need for certain people in the class – not my friends, but some others- to sing it TO me, leaning in my direction. (I could be paranoid, but not for the five years we sang this song.) But I sucked it up, and got through it.

One day, when I was in 5th grade, Mrs. Joseph announced that we could sing anything we wanted. One kid asked for an unfamiliar page. I turned to it, and, of course, it was that Stephen Foster classic, Old Black Joe. I had no idea the piece was in the book! What would Mrs. Joseph do? What would I do? Quickly I decided that if we sang the song, I would walk out of the room. (To where, I had no idea.)
Mrs. Joseph gets to the page, and she says, “Hmm, let’s sing something else.” Walkout averted.

But in retrospect, I wish there had been a conversation about WHY we weren’t singing it. And I wish I could find a copy of that book; I really liked most of the songs.

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