Many of us have heard it in church and elsewhere: the ubiquitous “kumbaya” song. Samuel Freedman has written a remonstratively nostalgic article that bemoans current usage of the word, which today is often used as a mild epithet indicating there will be no compromise or consensus. This usage is not limited to politics, though it is frequently used in that setting.
Although I find the history and etymology of “kumbaya” (and the song from which it comes) interesting and worthy, it is more than a bit churlish to suggest, as Freedman and others do, that current usage is offensive or racist. Words have something like a natural history or phylogeny all their own, and the unfolding of this history might be analogized to natural selection: nothing is predetermined and the process is not conscious.
I find it even more churlish to suggest, as does UNC-Chapel Hill professor of anthropology Glenn Hinson, that:
“The song in white hands was never grounded in faith. Its words were simplistic; its tune was breezy. And it was simplistically dismissed.”
I am all for recognizing excellence, soul, and passion when it comes to music, but this brazen and overly general assertion is a bit much — even if it might be true for some. “White hands” is not a valid category and indeed is pernicious in its own way.