History & Etymology of “Kumbaya”

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.

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4 thoughts on “History & Etymology of “Kumbaya”

  1. Mark

    After reading your comments I can see why no one has yet left a comment on what you wrote. Using words like ubiquitous, remonstratively, bemoans, epithet, etymology, phylogeny and finally pernicious, in a 5 paragraph blog lost most of the readers of your article because they did not want to go to their dictionary every other sentence to understand what you are writing. I never believe in dumbing down for the uneducated, but if you are not communicating your thoughts then it is irrelevant.

  2. Cris Post author

    I have thousands of readers each day and you are the first (in over two years) to berate my diction. The people for whom I write this blog (including myself) use these kinds of words every day. In fact, these aren’t even difficult words — they are common.

    I’m not interested in writing short, simple, declarative sentences containing nothing but common words, and I have no interest in mimicking the style of USA Today or my local newspaper. My preference is for writing that is challenging, playful, and uncommon. I like to play with words. If you don’t like the style or diction, you needn’t read it.

  3. ben tillman

    You could say that “Kumbaya” is racist inasmuch as it is sung with fake “African” lyrics. The Gullahs were singing in English, and “Kumbaya” is actually “Come by Here”, with the “r” in “here” elided.

  4. John Murphy

    I believe the word used in the song KumbaYah, was most likely misinterpreted because of the origins of the song being sung by Southern slaves … They most likely were saying. COME BY YAH , YAH being the shortened name of our Creator YAHAVEH.

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