Is Mister Bluebird harmless, innocuous and exceedingly treacly? Or blatantly racist?
The questions arise after an author of a Letter to the Editor wrote that Barack Obama will be our "Zip-a-dee-do-dah" president. In several subsequent letters we've received, the writer has since been called a racist and we've been accused of racial insensitivity for printing it.
In this case, context is the key issue. The lyrics of the song itself is all happiness and light. I can feel my blood sugar rising just reading the following lines:
My, oh, my, what a wonderful day.
Plenty of sunshine headin' my way,
"Mister Bluebird's on my shoulder,
It's the truth, it's 'actch'll'
Everything is 'satisfactch'll.'"
The problem is that the song was featured in "Song of the South," a 1946 Disney production, and presented by Uncle Remus, a character rife with racial stereotypes. As presented in 1946, the depiction of Uncle Remus reeks of the era's white ignorance toward post-Civil War reconstruction and the African-American culture. So the ditty, on its face harmless in its thick corn syrup, is considered by some a relic of America's racial divide.
For others, it's an anthem of optimism that has been covered by everyone from Michael Jackson to Billy Ray Cyrus to Louis Armstrong to The Hollies. And the term itself has wedged its way into English vernacular, usually as a signal to others that they're communicating with a hopeless square.
So was the Letter to the Editor inappropriate? Given the breadth of sarcastic rhetoric throughout the letter -- land of milk and honey, the fiddling Nero, blue bird of happiness -- I doubt the author had racist intent. And, given the ubiquitous use of the term among a certain generation, it never occurred to us that it might have negative connotations.