Login Register Logout Edit Account search
The Past Is Imperfect
by
Kate Smith statue covered before removal (YouTube screenshot)

I remember listening to Kate Smith with my parents. I think it was on the Ed Sullivan show. You could tell, even with our TV’s tinny speaker, that her fulsome voice could reach the far seats of the largest venue and rattle the teeth there like castanets. Her big voice was matched by a big body. I’m certain I wasn’t the only wise guy kid who, when she sang the signature line of her hit, “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” imagined the next line should be, “Kate Smith will hide it from view.” Another Smith standard became a fixture at Yankee Stadium till just a few days ago — “God Bless America.” If the wokelings among us have their way, it will be banished forever from the ears of Yankee fans and, indeed, from any other public performance. Smith, they say, was a racist.

All around us the oh-so-woke guard the less enlightened from damaging things like statues of guys who died a century and a half ago or Founding Fathers who weren’t Democratic Socialists before Democratic Socialism was conjured up. Thomas Jefferson, for example, was key to creating the first nation to put things like freedom of religion and freedom of speech into a constitution that guaranteed them as fundamental rights. He would have been hanged by the neck, if George Washington had caught a bullet on one of his many battlefields. Tom, however, owned slaves, so anything associated with him should have his name removed and his every sin should be trumpeted. That was the practice employed by Joseph Stalin back in the days of Communist Russia. When some official who’d been dutifully executing state enemies by the bushel fell foul of Uncle Joe and was himself executed, it was embarrassing for the boss to have photos of the dead guy standing side-by-side with him smiling in official documents or books. The solution was to blot out the fellow from all those images, not a small task in the days before Photoshop. The now-despised was also cut out of all records as anything other than a louse. It may be more difficult to expunge and revise Thomas Jefferson but don’t count out the know-best horde. They dream big politically correct dreams. Meanwhile, Kate Smith makes an easier target.

In the 1930s, Smith recorded two songs with racist lyrics and was drawn accepting a “mammy” doll from a fan in a racist cartoon ad for the baking powder company that sponsored her radio show. Smith probably had little or nothing to do with creating the ad, but she did sing the songs. One was “Pickaninny Heaven,” which she sang in the 1933 film Hello Everybody to African-American children playing orphans. The song, which is dated to at least 1918, described a happy afterlife featuring such offensively stereotypical rewards for the children as gigantic watermelons. A second song was her 1931 version of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which came from the Broadway revue George White’s Scandals and included the lyrics, “Someone had to pick the cotton.… That’s why darkies were born.” This song has been described as a satire on racist attitudes toward African-Americans, for it emphasized the unfair burden they carried in life. There’s reason to believe this is true, as it was also recorded in the same year by the African-American artist Paul Robeson, best known for his role in the musical Showboat. He was hardly anyone’s Uncle Tom. Robeson was an advocate for civil rights and so liberal that he was a supporter of the Soviet Union, even when the above-mentioned Uncle Joe was killing all those enemies, including some Robeson knew personally.

Smith was born in 1907, just 42 years after the Civil War. Stereotypical representations of African-Americans were routine in song, literature, theater, radio, and film during the early years of her career. While African-Americans got the worse of it by far, many other ethnic groups also got rough treatment. It would be decades before such crude entertainment was no longer tolerated. An examination of the biography of any entertainer of that time, including many African-American performers, is likely to reveal something that can be called racist. Does this make racist claptrap from the past okay? Not at all. Smith, however, died in 1986 and isn’t around to defend herself or apologize. No other evidence of racism in her life has become public. Others, for whom there is abundant evidence, have received better treatment.

Smith didn’t block statehood for Alaska for fear its congressional delegation would support civil rights legislation like Bill Clinton’s mentor Sen. J. William Fulbright. She wasn’t an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan like Sen. Robert Byrd. Sen. Hillary Clinton called him her mentor. Those guys supported segregation and worse racist sins that had far more impact than a couple of forgotten repulsive songs and an even more obscure offensive ad. Despite this, Fulbright’s name remains on the scholarship named for him that students eagerly pursue. No one is chiseling Byrd’s name off the countless buildings and the other pork gifts to West Virginia he stuck his name on. Smith, however, is getting the boot out of Yankee Stadium. Perhaps we should recall why Smith’s “God Bless America” was being played there.

Composer Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant who deeply loved the United States, wrote “God Bless America” in 1918 while serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. He set it aside till 1938 when, fearful of the rise of Hitler, he brought the song out for Smith to perform for Armistice Day as a reminder to Americans that we should pray for our country. Perhaps he chose her because he was confident she could belt it out with the gusto he desired for his message. She sang it on her radio show, and it was so well received that during the 1940 presidential race both Democrat Franklin Roosevelt and his opponent Republican Wendell Willkie used it as their campaign song. During World War II, Smith sang the song at war bond rallies. It helped spur patriotism during the hard struggle. After the war, the song remained popular, and she was routinely called to sing it at public gatherings. The general public, including a generation of Baby Boomers, also sang it on patriotic occasions. Smith’s recording of her singing “God Bless America” sold thousands of copies. She, with Berlin, signed over their royalties to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.

The National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers began playing a Smith recording of the song before their games in 1969 and came to believe it gave them luck. This appeared to be true for when they brought Smith in to sing it live before Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals, the Flyers won the cup. A statue of Smith was erected outside the Flyers’ arena, the Spectrum, to honor their good luck charm and permanently lend good fortune to the team. Following the 9/11 terror attacks, “God Bless America” was commonly sung or played during the seventh inning stretch at major league baseball games. The New York Yankees chose to play Smith’s recording of the song while occasionally switching to different versions. That stopped when some diligent PC enforcer investigating what he must have considered a dangerous demonstration of patriotism discovered Smith’s racist recordings. The Yankees immediately announced that “erring on the side of sensitivity” they were ditching Smith for other performers. The Philadelphia Flyers did, too, and in a gesture Smith fans may hope brings them lots of bad luck, they draped a black tarp over her statue then removed it.

When looking at the past, we need to balance the good with the bad. Kate Smith sang a couple of ugly songs and her sponsor ran an ugly ad, but she sang nearly 3,000 other songs and one particularly good song that has encouraged our nation during times of crisis. After Pearl Harbor, Smith clocked an amazing 520,000 miles traveling to entertain troops. She also sang at war bond rallies. Her spirited rendition of “God Bless America” so stirred the patriotism of her audiences that, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, she helped sell more war bonds than any other entertainer, $600 million worth. That’s in 1940s dollars. It did a lot to defeat Imperial Japan and destroy the Nazis, history’s greatest racists.

No doubt, there were many happy hearts in PC-town, where dwell the pure by self-proclamation, when the Yankees and the Flyers unceremoniously degraded Kate Smith. To them, we can say, provided the clay leaves off at the ankles, heroes with clay feet are better than no heroes at all. The imperfections you decry are serious and regrettable, but, believe it or not, you aren’t perfect, either. Someday, if your way of thinking succeeds, someone may dig up sins in your past then remove your statues and silence your voices.

Sign Up to receive Our Latest Updates! Register