On Thursday, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced that the band and athletic department would no longer sanction or promote the use of the traditional “Gator Bait” cheer in response to the phrase’s historic association with racism.
The decision was controversial. It was also the right one.
Now, before I explain what I am saying, I want to make it abundantly clear at the outset what I am not saying.
I’m not saying that there is any evidence the chant originates from the racist term (and Fuchs conceded as much in his statement). I am also not saying that if you participated in the chant at any point, you are a racist or acted in a racist manner.
So, what am I saying?
Well, it’s important to first understand the historical context of the phrase “gator bait” outside its context as a cheer for Florida athletics. It allegedly derives from a horrifying practice of using Black children as bait for alligators in the south in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though the historicity of this claim is debated and there isn’t substantive evidence that this actually occurred, the phrase “gator bait,” or “alligator bait,” is a well-documented racial slur from the time period.
Cartoons and postcards depicting Black children sitting precariously on a log above a large alligator are captioned “alligator bait,” and there’s even a song from 1899 titled “Mammy’s Little Alligator Bait,” which features overtly racist lyrics, demonstrated by the chorus below.
Hush-aby, don’t yo’ cry,
mammy’s little piccaninny’s gwine to get a present mighty soon,
When de stars am a-peepin’ and de moon it am a-creepin’
den yo’ mammy’s gwine to sing ‘dis tune,
Shut yo’ eye bye and bye,
mam will whip yo’ if yo’ cry,
Someone am a-comin’ thro’ de gate;
Go to sleep, don’t yo’ peep,
listen to me tell yo’,
yo’s mammy little alligator bait.
But, as previously stated, even Fuchs admitted that there isn’t evidence of a racial association with the chant at UF, and predictably, this angered many fans. It also angered some former players such as Lawrence Wright, who popularized the term in 1995 after a win over Florida State, announcing, “If you ain’t a Gator, you’re Gator Bait.” Wright told the Gainesville Sun’s Pat Dooley that he wasn’t happy with the decision to change the chant.
“Me and the president need to sit down and talk about this.”
Wright did receive a call from a University Athletic Association official to inform him of the decision.
“I’m not going for it,” said Wright, who won the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation’s best defensive back in 1996. “I created something for us. It’s a college football thing. It’s not a racist thing, It’s about us, the Gator Nation. And I’m Black.
Believe me, I understand where Wright is coming from. Certainly, he meant nothing racial in his use of the phrase. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if yesterday was the first time he’s even heard about its historical usage. And perhaps he’s right. Maybe Fuchs should have talked to former Black players before making the decision. But I also doubt it would have made much of a difference.
Because, while completely valid and worth considering, Wright’s opinion isn’t the only one that matters here. And the fact is, no matter how many times defenders of the chant wrongfully claim so, Wright didn’t coin the phrase. Sure, he popularized it and led to the official embrace of the chant. But “Gator Bait” was a part of UF canon long before the Gators beat the Seminoles in 1995.
The publication Gator Bait Magazine was created in 1980 (15 years before Wright said it), and the chant and usage of the phrase was popular even long before that, as shown in this picture from 1956, taken from the Smathers archive.
So, while we should take Wright’s opinion seriously, we also can’t ignore the thoughts of other Black people in the UF community, a community that still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusion.
As a white student at Florida, that isn’t always (or even usually) apparent to me. I was raised in a county that is 91 percent white and attended a high school where the vast majority of students looked like me.
So to me, UF feels diverse. At least, more diverse than what I was used to. But my perceptions don’t capture the lived experiences of Black people on campus. UF received an “F” score in race equity in 2019 by a study from the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center. Black students account for just 6.1 percent of the student body, the fourth-lowest percentage among public schools in Florida.
But we aren’t just reckoning with racial inequity in the present. In the weeks since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, we’ve seen perhaps the greatest coming to terms with institutional racism in the United States in decades. Protests have spurred new discussions about the scope of police brutality, but it has also led to a wider condemnation of historical relics of racism, such as Confederate iconography and symbolism in public places.
And in the wake of these protests, we must look at the past, examining traditions and deciding if the spirit of those traditions aligns with the values that we as a university community purportedly aim to uphold in the modern-day.
This is especially important at a school like Florida, which didn’t integrate at all until 1958 (mind you, two years after the phrase was documented to have been used at Gators football games). In fact, to this day there are still a number of buildings named after prominent Florida segregationists, including its student union and basketball arena.
Given this information, how can we continue to use a phrase like “gator bait,” that, though benign in its origin at UF, is still undoubtedly a racial slur? And the belief in that fact didn’t start yesterday, either. Many Black students have been aware of the history of the phrase for years and have pushed to have it changed. Is making them feel welcome at an institution specifically designed for the betterment of all of humanity really less important than preserving a 15-second cheer at football games?
UF has other traditions. And no matter what those who promulgate slippery slope fallacies say, those traditions will still exist. Even the “gator bait” chant is unlikely to disappear from the Swamp, though it won’t be officially encouraged by the school.
But if even now, armed with new information about the historical context of the phrase as a racial slur, you still feel compelled to defend the chant and criticize the change, I sincerely implore you to take a step back, look deep inside and question why that may be.
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