As hundreds of Pomona College alumni descend upon the campus for Alumni Weekend May 2-5, there are sure to be graduates looking to relive their glory days through reverent nostalgia, whimsical antics and general drunkenly disorder.
In addition, while jaunting about their stomping grounds of yesteryear, many Pomona grads will likely sing their school’s alma mater, Hail Pomona, Hail, as alums are wont to do.
Yet, few current students will recognize the song as Pomona’s alma mater. The hymn became controversial in the spring of 2008 after fliers appeared across the campus linking the song’s inception to a blackface minstrel show performed as early as 1909. While the song itself contains no offensive lyrics, this apparently sordid pedigree has tainted the image of the song in the eyes of the Pomona administration.
President David Oxtoby sent a letter to the Pomona College community Dec. 15, 2008, writing that, “Given the divisive nature of the song on campus… it will not be included in programs for Commencement or Convocation for the present.” However, he also “decided to confirm Hail Pomona, Hail as Pomona’s Alma Mater and to end the suspension of performances at official college events such as Alumni Weekend.”
This was certainly an odd turn of events. If the song is truly bigoted and immoral, then why not comprehensively ban it from all college functions? Pomona’s demographically driven ban—a musical score forbidden for current students but “confirmed” for aging alums—results in a philosophical no-man’s-land of carefully considered interests. This “selective” prohibition both appeases youthful rage and alumni nostalgia—the latter a sentiment that often propels donor wallets.
Hypocrisy aside, and regardless of whether the song was actually performed as part of a blackface minstrel show (a charge comprehensively refuted in a well-researched report by Pomona alumnus Rosemary Choate ’63 in 2008), the notion that one must ban anything with unsavory historical roots borders on the ridiculous.
Indeed, President Oxtoby acknowledged this point in his decision, writing, “there is the troubling idea that all things associated with an imperfect past should be considered tainted even if there is nothing inherently objectionable about them.”
And yet, Pomona apparently got over that trouble and imposed the ban on Hail Pomona, Hail anyway.
Another troubling idea about the decision: What’s the limiting principle? Where to start? Where to end?
If one were to implement Pomona’s historical purity policy across every American institution, a vast array of professional sports associations, newspapers and magazines, and a lion’s share of the colleges and universities would have to be discontinued in the name of political correctness.
In the realm of music alone, notable tunes like the Star-Spangled Banner could potentially be deemed politically incorrect due to their nefarious origins. The melody of the Star-Spangled Banner was taken from a drinking song popular at an all-male social club in London. By Pomona’s standards, the national anthem has got to go.
And what of art or cinema? Should we ban masterpieces because their creators may have held racist or sexist beliefs irrelevant to the overall significance of their work? Walt Disney was infamously rumored to be anti-Semitic (a charge contested by many who knew him), yet we continue to enjoy movies and products branded with his name.
Indeed, Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy, was a Pomona alum from the class of 1951 and for whom the “Roy Edward Disney Professor of Creative Writing” at Pomona is obviously named. Is the close nephew of a rumored anti-Semite sufficiently proximate ground on which to rid the faculty of any association with the Disney name? The logic of Pomona’s decision inevitably takes us to some pretty untenable places.
More important, Pomona College missed a crucial opportunity to teach its students an enduring lesson through the whole song debacle. Instead of trying to cover up the past or pretend that racism didn’t (and doesn’t) exist (even if it didn’t actually exist, in this case), why not try to examine more fully the connections between racism and sexism in history and culture and try to learn how to stop them from spreading to other spheres of influence?
Pomona chose to shut down further discussion in the name of avoiding “divisiveness.” In doing so, Pomona improperly elevated perceived student unity over the essential core value of the university in civil society: discovering the truth through never-ending discourse, dialogue and debate.
President Oxtoby imposed his campus ban on Hail Pomona, Hail only “for the present.” Nearly five years later, perhaps it’s now time to revisit the wisdom of that misguided prohibition.
Censorship via political correctness is not the solution to discrimination; rather, censorship merely allows more subtle forms of bias to fester beneath the surface of silence.