England rugby union bosses are reviewing the use of the slave-era song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as a chant by fans, saying many may not be aware of its “historical context.”
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) did not immediately respond to CNN but in a statement released to British media the organization said it was determined to “accelerate change and grow awareness,” as the Black Lives Matter movement prompts corporations and institutions to rethink how they operate.
“The RFU has stated we need to do more to achieve diversity and we are determined to accelerate change and grow awareness,” the governing body said in a statement.
“The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot song has long been part of the culture of rugby and is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or its sensitivities.
“We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions.”
Former England rugby union player Maggie Alphonsi spoke out about why she no longer sings the song, writing on Twitter: “I will NEVER stop using my voice!!”
Brian Moore, a former English rugby union player and commentator said: “The world has moved on and, rightly, things that were normal then should not necessarily be normal now … It should be celebrated in its rightful context.”
But former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan posted a news story about the issues around the song on Instagram with the caption: “Please tell me if I am wrong … but this surely can’t be right !!??”
Is it right for rugby fans to sing a slave-era song?
The song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” 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 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.
In 2017, CNN Sport examined whether it’s 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,” Cornell William Brooks, then president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), described the use of this spiritual in a sporting arena. Brooks is now Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Lord Herman Ouseley, chairman of anti-racism group Kick it Out in 2017, said singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to cheer a rugby team was a matter of “ignorance, lack of sensitivity and arrogance,’ while American academics have called it cultural appropriation.
Three years ago, when asked by CNN whether the RFU would be reviewing the use of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an spokesperson for English rugby’s governing body 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.”