The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted thought and discussion about institutionalised behaviours and racism that still exist. It has also triggered a wide-reaching review at England Rugby.
The RFU has said it needs to do more to achieve diversity and it is determined to accelerate change and grow awareness. A debate has begun over the appropriateness of the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
It has been sung at Twickenham in support of the England rugby team for over three decades, and has become part of the England rugby match-day experience. But it’s sung by many who perhaps up until now have had no awareness of its origins in the slave trade.
So what are these origins and how did the song become a sporting anthem?
Sky Sports Rugby spoke to Josephine Wright, a Professor of Music and Black Studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio, on an issue she was first interviewed about in a New York Times article back in 2017.
When was Swing Low Sweet Chariot first written and first performed?
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot is a Negro spiritual,” Wright says. “It’s a folk song, and by its very nature, its providence is centred in anonymity. Most folk songs we don’t know the true origin. They’ve just been sung and passed down from generation to generation.
“From the evidence that exists – and I’m talking now about 8,000 slave narratives in various forms and book pamphlets that were published both in the United States and England by escaped slaves – we know that these songs were a part of a group improvisation. They made them up. And these songs addressed many concerns.
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot belongs to a category of slave songs called ‘alerting song’. Alerting songs had double meanings.
“Since slaves had absolutely no freedom or rights as human beings, they devised a system of communication amongst themselves whereby they could communicate under the watchful eye of the slave owner or his agents without fear of reprisal.
“The punishment for being caught would be whipped or lash 39 lashes. Individuals who led these prayer meeting type things would be severely punished. Sometimes their tongues cut out. These are learning songs which were also used on the Underground Railroad.
“What they signify was freedom. Freedom of assembly, freedom to own one’s own body.”
What is the meaning of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?
“Well, it’s derived from that biblical passage of Elijah ascending into heaven, on a fiery chariot, and being pursued by a band of angels.
“And it’s going to be a chariot ride to that freedom. The use of the imagery of water: ‘I looked over Jordan. What did I see?’ Water was an escape route for the slaves, it probably meant either the Ohio River or the Mississippi River, which were means of escape.
“This song also is used as a burial song. But again, it is a symbol of freedom of escape.”
What is the significance of the song today in the United States? Is it still performed? Is it still sung at funerals and wakes?
“Yes, it was sung at my mother’s funeral. It is a religious song. And it is respected within that context of the slave experience.
“Black people in America are still not free, as indicated by the murder of George Floyd recently, and so those songs have not died out.
“They’ve been sometimes substituted with gospel music, which is a newer, upbeat type of music. But those old songs are alive. They were alive during the civil rights movement. And you can hear some of them today.”
The song was first sung, as we understand it, in rugby clubs in this country in the 1960s. What does it tell us about the malleability of meaning in cultural objects. Can they perhaps change or indeed move over time?
“I don’t think it’s a meaning that changes. I think it’s a lack of knowledge, education and understanding of each individual’s or each group’s history and legacy.
“And when there is a lack of understanding, it becomes easy and cool to appropriate someone else’s culture. Without really being sensitive to it.”
Can there ever be an acceptable appropriation of a cultural object? We’ve seen examples in American sport where organisations have changed the imagery they use because it has been insensitive at the very least to cultural groups such as indigenous Native Americans.
“That discussion is going on right now. It’s been going on for a very, very long time.
“I think that as in the UK and America, our business institutions and sport institutions are rethinking how they appropriate symbols of white supremacy and racism, and how it impacts those who play or work within the system.
“And it’s how it impacts the public. I think this is a point of reckoning for people all over.”
There seems to be an opinion among black former England rugby players that the song shouldn’t be banned at Twickenham, but there should be more education and awareness so people can make up their own minds based upon the facts. Would you agree with that?
“Most definitely, there needs to be more education and exposure to primary sources.
“Many of these slave narratives are available on the Internet. If you read the horror of slave life and how people had to struggle to retain a sense of community, a sense of self-worth, I think that will give people pause when they seize upon historical songs that record the suffering and misery of over four million people held in bondage in the United States.
“My people were the only immigrants to America who did not come willingly. We were forced into slavery. That was sanctioned by the United States Constitution.
“Many people don’t understand that. We’re never taught that when we study the United States Constitution. That’s a heavy message.”
Since the death of George Floyd, has the growth in the Black Lives Matter movement created more awareness and more education? Is there more of a desire amongst all people to learn about history?
“I would hope so, but history tells us that white supremacy has been systemic in the United States for 450 years.
“And in fact the kind of systemic racism that was created here on these shores has been exported all over the world.
“Until we understand that people look differently and act differently than we do even as human beings, and we can look them in the eye as a human being…I don’t know, I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime.
“And I would anticipate that you will not see it in your children’s lifetime. But I think we’re having this painful conversation. It’s needed.”
If everybody sings Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, understood where it came from, what it means, its significance, would that make you more comfortable about it being sung to support a team or not?