The 147th Kentucky Derby is set for tomorrow, May 1. The Derby is the highest profile horse race in the country. It is the biggest event of the year in Louisville, at least to those of us who don’t live within a 50 mile radius of the largest city in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
No doubt protesters will be out, as has been the case for many years. This politicization of everything accomplishes little of the protesters goals, and ruins the good institutions and traditions of society.
There’s a long history of alleged racism and failure on the part of Churchill Downs to do enough for the community. The controversies in 2020 were mostly related to the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a young black woman. A Louisville police officer is charged with the shooting.
A long controversy surrounds the 100-year old tradition of singing (or playing) “My Old Kentucky Home.” It is suggested that the song embellishies Kentucky and its history of slavery. And so the writer of the song is deemed racist. This is more (political) cancel culture where events and people from the past are judged by modern day mores. We submit that it is a betrayal of history to judge people and events of the past by current standards. Better to understand them for what they were, in the context of their time, learn from them, and move on.
It can be reasonably argued, whether right or wrong, that Stephen Foster didn’t write the song with any bias, and that his compositions presented blacks positively. The original lyrics of the famous song were actually a condemnation of Kentucky’s slavers who sold husbands away from their wives and mothers away from their children. It’s the lament of an enslaved person longing to return to the cabin with his wife and children. In his autobiographical book, My Bondage and My Freedom, abolitionist luminary Frederick Douglass wrote that the song “awakens sympathies for the slave, in which antislavery principles take root, grow, and flourish.” Foster was friends with a Pittsburgh-area abolitionist. And he also wrote an abolitionist play. So, although much of his music was written for the mid-1800s popular tradition of blackface minstrel shows, we do our history and this American legend a disservice by judging him as racist. Or laying the same on the Derby for singing it.
Others will try to create controversy around the sport of horse racing itself – that it is cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. We reject that claim. Are race horses subject to more injuries and harm than other sports? We think not. Horses were created to run. Race horses are exceptionally well cared for. The owners, trainers, jockeys and other stable hands share a profound love of these impressive creatures.
We recommend ignoring controversy that might swirl around the 2021 Derby. Set aside efforts to politicize a wonderful American tradition. Savor the sights and sounds of the Derby. Pick a horse to cheer for. Enjoy the fastest two minutes in sport.
And try a mint julep. Traditions matter.