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"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" Not so Sweet

Chris is a high school teacher in Canada and mom of two children.

The Origins

The song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is quite probably one of the best known African-American spiritual songs. Its origins stem back to the slave era, and are believed to be some sort of a signal for those slaves who were looking for freedom. Some have argued that the freedom slaves sought was actual physical freedom from the bonds of slavery while others have put forth the argument that what the slaves were seeking in the song was eternal freedom.

“Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
. . .
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.”

However, other historians believe that it's possible there are actually coded messages throughout "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that would ultimately allow slaves to escape and find their way to freedom. Clues like "Wade in the water" might be construed as a tip to throw off the scent of eager bloodhounds while "The river ends between two hills” was an instruction to follow the Tombigbee River through Mississippi, where they would reach the twin-coned Woodall Mountain; once they saw “another river on the other side,” the Tennessee River, they would be able to head into Illinois to freedom.

How did a song with so many layers to it become an England union rugby chant?

Lord Herman Ouseley, a British Member of Parliament and chairman of anti-racism group Kick it Out, said fans chanting the song as a means of support for their team are demonstrating a great deal of ignorance and arrogance. Some have called it cultural appropriation. However, there are many who are simply unaware of the song's cultural significance.

Cornell Brooks, a Methodist minister and the CEO of the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) said he was unaware how the song was being used in the UK as a victory chant.

"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, he noted. "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."

So how did this song about slavery come to be a song sung by rugby fans?

Chanting for Their Team

Chanting for Their Team

Lack of Knowledge, or Simply Ignorance?

Simply put, there seems to have been a significant lack of knowledge about the meaning behind "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."

Lord Oueseley, himself a Guyana-born parliamentarian, said that even black British citizens find that they might be growing tired of the lack of ignorance.

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"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," he said. "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."

However, fans of the English rugby squad believe that the song is meant to be sung "with gusto" and that the song's context had changed over the years. The song has been sung for the squad for about 30 years.

People have pegged March 19, 1988 as the date on which the song was first sung, and there are suspicions that it's because Chris Oti, the first black man to play on the English squad in 80 years, scored a hat-trick over Ireland during the game on that date.

Brooks, however, thinks the explanation makes it doubly insulting that "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" be sung for the English Rugby Union.

Is he right?

I am not of mixed race; I don't fully appreciate the context of slavery from which people might connect with the song as a result of their heritage. However, I can appreciate that it would be incredibly insulting for people of color—or, according to history, even Native Americans—to hear that song sung as any sort of victory celebration.

While I am not one to interfere in the cultural traditions of others, perhaps it is time that fans re-examine their choice in support songs for their favorite rugby squad. Perhaps that would lead to a greater understanding of the historical context in which they are sung?

Or perhaps we are simply becoming too sensitive for our own good?


Jolyon Wagg on June 08, 2020:

Great that Greg Schweizer has left such a helpful reminder that, in the 21st Century, white people still feel qualified to comment on issues about race with complete confidence that is matched only by their utter, unreflective ignorance. Well done Greg - you're right about everything, obviously, and when anyone objects to your bigotry and stupidity, just churn out the "PC" slogan: it's easier than turning on your brain.

Greg Schweizer from Corona, California. on March 28, 2017:

Very interesting hub. I do agree with your last sentence and I have been saying that for a very long time, especially with PC, people are way to sensitive these days.

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