New York schools drop ‘Jingle Bells’ song over historical ‘blackface’ roots

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BRIGHTON, N.Y. (WROC) — The Brighton Central School District, located just outside Rochester, New York, 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.”

The superintendent adds that the song is closely tied to a religious holiday that is not celebrated by everyone in the community, meaning it “was not likely a song that we would have wanted as part of the school curriculum in the first place.”

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. McGowan highlights other songs with “questionable” histories, including ‘Ching a Ring Chaw,’ ‘Canoe Song,’ and ‘Cumberland Gap,’ that have been “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.”

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