‘A slap in the face of history’ – Should a slave-era song be used as a sports chant?

Story highlights

Debate over "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" continues

Song is an African-American spiritual

England rugby fans have adopted it as the team's anthem

CNN  — 

“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 is one of the most recognized African-American spirituals. Revered, emotive, and rooted in the horrors of US slavery and the oppression of race.

But for the last three decades, the familiar melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has also been the adopted anthem of England’s rugby union team, its haunting chorus a common echo in stadiums where the national team plays.

And therein lies the problem.

Is it right that a slave-era song – one which is believed to be a coded message for those slaves seeking the underground railroad to freedom – is used to galvanize a national team to sporting glory?

Should lyrics which are about suffering and despair be sung by thousands of England fans who are often middle-class, often white?

“A slap in the face to the history of slavery,” is how Cornell William Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), described the use of this spiritual in a sporting arena.

Lord Herman Ouseley, a British Member of Parliament and chairman of anti-racism group Kick it Out, said singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to cheer a rugby team was a matter of “ignorance, lack of sensitivity and arrogance.”

American academics have called it cultural appropriation, but many England rugby union fans are unaware of the origins of a tune they now call their own and believe it now serves a different function.

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‘Historically insulting and disturbing’

Cornell Brooks, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Brooks, a lawyer and an activist, admitted he was not aware of how “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was being used on the other side of the Atlantic until the issue was raised by American media during this year’s Six Nations.

Despite this not being the first instance of music or art originating in one historical context but used in another, Brooks said singing “Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot” in the stands was no less disconcerting.

“As the CEO of NAACP and a fourth generation minister in the Methodist church, it’s difficult to overlook the degree to which these songs are being ripped out of their history,” he told CNN Sport.

“Can you imagine people whose lives, bodies and beings were being sold as commodities singing about freedom, their longing for freedom, their longing for a God to free them, and have those same songs being sung in celebration of a victory on a rugby field? It’s just odd and historically insulting.

“Rugby, as with any sport, has a certain universal appeal and everyone – all the fans – should be comfortable and enjoy the experience. Listening to a song about slavery on a rugby field is just an insulting and disturbing experience.

“As an African American and descendant of slaves, it would be very hard for me to listen to a spiritual being sung on a rugby field. That’s not something I could do and a great many people aware of their history would find it very disturbing. “

‘Ignorance and arrogance’

Illustration of slave children being fed at Hilton Head, South Carolina in December 1861.

Professor Louis Moore, associate professor of history at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, said he was shocked, but not surprised, to learn of a solemn spiritual being used at Twickenham, the home of English rugby union.

“At best its just a bad mistake, at worst it’s a continuation of global imperialism in sport,” he told CNN Sport.

“It’s about appropriation, power and not caring about history. You’d hope they find another national song.”

Social media threats

Lord Ouseley described the abuse he has been subjected to on social media when addressing such issues as tiresome and threatening.

“The moment someone, like myself, suggests that the authorities try to read knowledge and sensitivity, you can expect a reaction claiming that you want them to ban them from singing their theme for no other reason that ‘political correctness,’ whatever that is, followed by a barrage of endless social media abuse,” said the 72-year-old Guyana-born parliamentarian.

“The reality is that most black British people have bigger issues to confront in the context of inequalities and exclusion and have therefore become apathetic towards challenging racially offensive chanting.

“Those small number of black followers who go to Twickenham are almost themselves ignorant about the history of this solemn spiritual and its origin.

“They are happy to blend in with the crowd and pleased to feel accepted by not showing objection to any intended or unintended disrespect and abuse.

“I cannot imagine attendees at a Black Power meeting wasting their time signing ‘Rule Britannia’ even satirically knowing that the symbolism of such themes are about the painful experiences of slavery, oppression, exclusion and racism.”

‘It should be sung with gusto’

On learning of the song’s origins, Tony Crawford, 60, from Birmingham believed “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” should still be “sung with gusto” at Twickenham regardless.

“It’s tradition,” he told CNN Sport before his team’s Six Nations clash with Scotland. “It’s a great song.”

Another England fan, Casey Boyd, from London, believed the context had changed.

“What it represents now is not the same thing it represented back then and this is more about a song that’s being sung to build team spirit,” she said.

Brooks said the England team itself had the power to stop the song being used as a rugby union anthem.

“Whether or not there will be legislative, legal jurisdiction is one thing, but the ability of the team themselves to do something about that is pretty much unquestioned,” he said.

When asked whether the Rugby Football Union (RFU) – English rugby’s governing body – would be reviewing the use of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an RFU spokesperson said: “Swing Low has been associated with rugby and rugby clubs for decades.

“It is sung by fans to get behind the England rugby team.”

Chris Oti was the first black player to play for England in 80 years.

England fans first sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on March 19, 1988, to celebrate the team’s victory over Ireland.

Why that song? Why then? British newspapers have pinned its origins to the performance of Chris Oti, the scorer of a hat-trick in that victory over the Irish and the first black man to play for England in 80 years. James Peters had been the first black player to represent England in 1906.

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A group of students, so the story goes, burst into song in recognition of Oti’s display that day and since then it has taken on a life of its own.

For Brooks, there is no mitigation.

“In respect to the song being sung for a black player does not make it any less offensive to black people, that does not mitigate the insult and injury at all,” he said.

“The fact that this may have been some kind of personal celebration does not in any way speak that it is politically insulting.”

Professor Moore added: “Things change, the meaning of words change. But it’s who’s changing the meaning. That’s the real problem here.

“Apparently it’d been nearly a 100 years since that team had a black player, which is striking. That says a lot about that sport, about the opportunity to play it.”

England successfully defended the Six Nations title this year.

Before his team’s Six Nations match against Scotland on March 11, New Zealand-born England captain Dylan Hartley defended the use of the song to galvanize the team.

“I don’t know the history,” he told reporters. “To me ‘Swing Low’ is the England rugby song. I’ve knew it like that as a kid, growing up in New Zealand. Should I know the history?

“To us it’s the noise, the sheer atmosphere it generates and the feelgood factor it gives Twickenham.”