Brighton schools address dropping ‘Jingle Bells’ song over historical blackface roots

Brighton

BRIGHTON, N.Y. (WROC) — The Brighton Central School District is addressing the use, or lack thereof, of the holiday classic song “Jingle Bells” in its curriculum.

In a letter to families on the BCSD website, Superintendent Kevin McGowan wrote: “It may seem silly to some, but the fact that ‘Jingle Bells’ was first performed in minstrel shows where white actors performed in blackface does actually matter when it comes to questions of what we use as material in school.”

According to Boston University professor Kyna Hamill, who researched the song’s origins for a 2017 article: “The legacy of ‘Jingle Bells’ is, as we shall see, a prime example of a common misreading of much popular music from the nineteenth century in which its blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history.”

McGowan said he addressed the song situation after a community member penned an article in the online publication The Rochester Beacon about the matter and how it was no longer being taught at the district’s Council Rock Primary School.

“Choosing songs other than ‘Jingle Bells’ wasn’t a major policy initiative, a ‘banning’ of the song or some significant change to a concert repertoire done in response to a complaint,” the superintendent wrote. “This wasn’t ‘liberalism gone amok’ or ‘cancel culture at its finest’ as some have suggested. Nobody has said you shouldn’t sing ‘Jingle Bells’ or ever in any way suggested that to your children.”

Furthermore, the superintendent wrote that the song is closely tied to a religious holiday that is not celebrated by everyone in the community:

“It is also important to note that a song so closely related to a religious holiday that is not celebrated by everyone in our community was not likely a song that we would have wanted as part of the school curriculum in the first place,” McGowan wrote.

According to the district’s K-2 Diversity and Equity curriculum for Council Rock Primary School, “Jingle Bells” isn’t the only song that is no longer taught to students:

“In researching ways to best answer my essential question, and best serve the needs of all my students, I started with revising the curriculum and content used with our students at Council Rock. There were songs that had been previously used/taught (by me as well!) that had a questionable past. Examples of these are ‘Canoe Song,’ ‘Ching a Ring Chaw,’ ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Little Liza Jane,’ ‘Cumberland Gap,’ ‘Jim Along Josie,’ ‘Jump Jim Joe,’ ‘Shoe Fly,’ ‘Sioux Lullabye.’ These are no longer in our repertoire, and are replaced with more contemporary, and relevant content.”

Last year, Brighton announced it would be changing its mascot from the “Barons” to the “Bruins” in one of a few “significant” steps forward for the district toward “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Superintendent’s full letter

Dear Members of the Brighton School Community, 

Several weeks ago, a resident of the community asked for more information regarding an item that he had noticed on the District’s website regarding work being done to review curriculum with a diversity/equity lens. Specifically, he was curious about the District’s decision to use different songs in the elementary music curriculum based on work being done to be more culturally responsive.

Several staff members provided feedback, explaining various reasons why the song “Jingle Bells” was no longer being used. This resident decided to write a piece on the subject and it was published last week by the Rochester Beacon. This article has been distributed by the author and picked up by a variety of media outlets. 

First, we couldn’t be more proud of our staff and the work they continue to do to reflect on what they teach and how they teach in an ongoing effort to be more culturally responsive, thoughtful, and inclusive. Let me be very clear, their work has been and continues to be smart, thoughtful, and well intentioned in every way. We stand behind their work without hesitation or question. They are doing work that they have been asked to do and they are doing it exceptionally well K-12 in every discipline. 

Second, it may seem silly to some, but the fact that “Jingle Bells” was first performed in minstrel shows where white actors performed in blackface does actually matter when it comes to questions of what we use as material in school. I’m glad that our staff paused when learning of this, reflected, and decided to use different material to accomplish the same objective in class. It is also important to note that a song so closely related to a religious holiday that is not celebrated by everyone in our community was not likely a song that we would have wanted as part of the school curriculum in the first place. Our staff found that their simple objective could be accomplished by singing any one of many songs in class and therefore they chose to simply choose other songs. 

Third, choosing songs other than “Jingle Bells” wasn’t a major policy initiative, a “banning” of the song or some significant change to a concert repertoire done in response to a complaint. This wasn’t “liberalism gone amok” or “cancel culture at its finest” as some have suggested. Nobody has said you shouldn’t sing “Jingle Bells” or ever in any way suggested that to your children. I can assure you that this situation is not an attempt to push an agenda. We were not and are not even discussing the song and its origins, whatever they may be. This was very simply a thoughtful shift made by thoughtful staff members who thought they could accomplish their instructional objective using different material. The change in material is also not something being forced on children or propaganda being spread. The teachers have never taught about the song in any way when it was being used then or in the midst of deciding not to use it. In other words, suggestions that this situation is somehow being used as a way to indoctrinate children just doesn’t make sense either. It is as simple as this, we are using different songs, and we are not teaching about their history at this level. Nobody is discussing politics about the song or anything regarding its history with students. This is not a political situation, it was a simple, thoughtful curricular decision. 

Finally, if there is ever a question as to whether or not something might be experienced differently by someone else, shouldn’t we be respectful of that? Is singing the song “Jingle Bells” so important that it outweighs the question about its past or its potential to not be inclusive in a variety of ways. If many, many songs are available to accomplish the same objective, then why wouldn’t we use those songs? I think our teachers answered that question very thoughtfully and I’m proud of their work. 



Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.

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