“When the Longhorn Band performs, it will be expected to perform The Eyes of Texas,” Douglas Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts, said in a memo to Longhorn Band directors Sept. 24.
This announcement came only two months after UT President Jay Hartzell pledged to “own, acknowledge and teach about all aspects of the origins of ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as we continue to sing it.”
How can we continue to sing a song with such blatantly racist origins?
There is no excuse for blindly prioritizing tradition and forcing band members to play a song that many do not feel comfortable playing. “The Eyes of Texas” shouldn’t be our school song in the first place.
“There has never been any suggestion from the faculty and staff directing the Longhorn Band, or from any other faculty or administrators, that students refusing to play ‘The Eyes of Texas’ as a matter of conscience might be punished or penalized,” Dempster said in an email. “That has always been the case and continues to be so.”
However, that contradicts the assertion that band members will be “expected to play ‘The Eyes of Texas.’” How will they enforce this expectation without penalties?
Additionally, there’s already a common understanding within the band and in the greater student community that “The Eyes of Texas” was coined by Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general who fought for slavery to be maintained in the south. We also know the song was performed by people in blackface at minstrel shows.
“I just think that if you've acknowledged it, then why aren't you taking the steps to actually fix it?” one band member, who requested to remain anonymous, said.
Longhorn Band members and parent organizations were instructed to redirect the press, and those asking questions, to band directors and other officials, hence the anonymity.
“We got told, essentially, not to talk to people about it,” the student said.
This might just be UT’s attempt to keep media pressure off of students, but students shouldn’t feel as though they are jeopardizing their position in the Band just because they want to speak out about issues that concern them.
If UT’s goal is to take into account the perspectives of students in redefining the meaning of a racist song — as asserted by the messages from Dean Dempster and President Hartzell — UT shouldn’t silence these same students.
Another Longhorn Band member who requested anonymity expressed that they don’t know anyone who’s going to play the song just because UT told them to.
“I think if there are any penalties for people, it's going to cause an even bigger problem than what they're trying to avoid,” the student said.
Additionally, most Longhorn Band directors refused interview requests, which defeats the purpose of redirecting the press to keep the pressure off of students. The only correspondence returned was a single sentence from Mary Poole, director of the Butler School of Music, via email, who previously told band members that no one is expected to perform the song if it goes against what they believe in.
“Here's my comment: I continue to support our students 100%,” Poole said.
I don’t think everyone at UT who is fighting to maintain “The Eyes of Texas” as the alma mater intends to perpetuate racism, but what they’re essentially saying is that keeping this song in place is more important than the harm it’s causing. I think UT cares more about putting a Band-Aid over this issue than actually tending to the wound. Current policies are silencing students, not supporting them.
UT says mixed feelings about the song are causing division in the band and greater community. If that’s the case, then maybe it’s time for the song to be replaced by a tune that doesn’t silence anyone’s voice.
Maybe it’s time for “The Eyes of Texas” to cease its withering gaze upon us.
Roland is a radio-television-film freshman from Houston, TX.