Outrage All the Way!: Jingle Bells, Racism, and Unfair Media Portrayal

After last Thursday’s session, Dr. Epstein told me about an academic journal article that proved the popular Christmas carol, “Jingle Bells,” has its origins in blackface minstrelsy.  Lo and behold, I did encounter the article written by Dr. Kyna Hamill, a theater professor at Boston University, with damning evidence about a beloved Christmas song that many of us so innocently learned as young children.  She drew evidence from various songs about sleigh-riding and how many lyrics between these songs were shared between one another [1].  One similarity she found was in its original title (“One-Horse Open Sleigh”) to a lyric in the 4th verse of Stephen C. Foster’s “Brudder Gum” (see below):


While the article makes some very interesting insights as to how the song came into being and how its racial history has been lost to the passage of time, it came with its fair share of praise and unfair share of relentless criticism.  A particular example can be found in a feature on Fox News’ daytime show “Fox & Friends,” which features Dr. Carol Swain, a former political science professor from Vanderbilt, debasing Dr. Hamill’s work as a mere ploy of the “liberal agenda” to “destroy Christmas.”

Professor claims ‘Jingle Bells’ is rooted in racism

This segment was truly meant to sensationalize a very thorough examination on America’s “swept-under-the-rug” racial history of “Jingle Bells” by attaching it to the various attacks that conservatives believed they faced (e.g. War on Christmas and liberal indoctrination.)  By vaguely pulling one quote out of Dr. Hamill’s article and framing a discussion around much larger concepts in the sociopolitical sphere of American culture, Fox News wildly misrepresented Dr. Hamill’s work as a deeper examination in popular American culture and wrote it off as simply destructive.

What also peeves me about this segment is the purpose of Dr. Swain’s role on the show.  By simply having a PhD and an academic career, this gave the impression that her take as an academic gave her credibility with her remarkably vapid arguments.  Perhaps it was simply that she wanted to shill her new book, but by mocking another academic, she allowed Fox News to portray her as a maverick professor taking on the “liberal agenda.”  It may also be worth noting that by being a black woman, Fox News may be taking advantage of Dr. Swain as a token commentator on race issues, and while she is very much entitled to her opinions, Dr. Swain cannot be the overall representation of all African-Americans in regards to this issue.

It is disappointing to see how Fox News portrayed Dr. Hamill, but it is not out of character for their role as a news outlet.  The same could probably go for many of the other major news broadcasting companies in the United States and the world, but when Dr. Hamill decided to go against the grain of popular American culture and uncover one of its many black-eyes, her image took a significant beating as the scapegoat of the “liberal agenda.”


[1] Hamill, “The story I must tell,” 376

[2] Foster, “Brudder Gum”


Foster, Stephen. “Brudder Gum,” New York, NY: Firth and Pond, 1849.

Hamill, Kyna. “’The story I must tell’: ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Minstrel Repertoire,” Cambridge University Press 58, no. 3 (September 2017): 375-407, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0040557417000291

Pierpont, J. “The one horse open sleigh,” Boston, MA: Oliver Ditson, 1857.


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