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I came across this story the other day at Powerline and I thought I’d write about it here at Ricochet. It’s a now all too familiar story, that of a dead white person being expunged from our culture for some real or perceived transgression against one of the pillars of today’s identity politics (those pillars being race and sex). And that most recent transgressor is singer Kate Smith (1907-1986), most well known for her version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America“. And what was Ms. Smith’s sin and the punishment therefor? First, the sin. It turns out that way back in 1931 she recorded the song “That’s Why Darkies Were Born”. It was a minor hit, reaching #12 on the Billboard chart. Here’s the song as performed by Ms. Smith;
Of course, the title of the song sounds a bit discordant today. But, the song was neither written nor recorded today and at the time was apparently written and seen as a satirical take on racism as per this article. Lending credence to the idea that the song was anti-racist is that Paul Robeson also recorded a version of the song around the same time.
In fact, when I listen to this song as sung by either Smith or Robeson and read the lyrics I don’t hear a song advocating or celebrating racism or racial discrimination. Rather, I hear a sad, but proud lament, about the condition of black people in America. I’ll discuss Robeson a bit later; but, back to Smith.
Smith’s punishment for her sinful past is that her recording of “God Bless America” will no longer be played during the seventh inning stretch at New York Yankee games as it has been since the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 because as a club spokesman stated “the Yankees take social, racial and cultural sensitivities very seriously”. That is not the only punishment for Ms. Smith. To add insult to injury, the Philadelphia Flyers will not only never again play “God Bless America” before important home games as they have since 1969, they have also seen fit to remove her statue originally installed in 1987 at the Spectrum, the Flyers former home, from Wells Fargo Center, the Flyers current home. Ms. Smith had a long history with the Flyers, singing “God Bless America” at the rink on four occasions including the Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6 in 1974. Over the years, the Flyers compiled an incredible won-loss record of 100-29-5 in games which were preceded by “God Bless America.” Here’s a nice account of Ms. Smith and the Flyers written in 2016 before this kerfuffle. All I can say is I hope they never win another game.
Kate Smith Statue at Wells Fargo Center
Kate Smith Statue in a Burqa shortly before removal
I should also note that Smith is also being criticized for another song she recorded, “Pickaninny’s Heaven” which is much less defensible than “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and was recorded for her movie debut Hello Everybody released in 1933. As is their wont, YouTube removed the video of this song as soon as this controversy arose so I am unable to post it here.
So these two songs from 90 years ago are all it takes to make Kate Smith a pariah for the zealots who deign to decide what is acceptable for modern consumption. The rest of her life and career, from God Bless America to the $600 million in war bonds she sold during World War II to the fact that Josephine Baker, who was a controversial person at the time, made her American debut on The Kate Smith Evening Hour television show in 1951, and her other good works mean nothing to the Social Justice Warrior crowd and those who live in fear of same.
I mentioned earlier that I had a little more to say about Paul Robeson, especially in relation to this current outrageous treatment of Kate Smith. Yes, they both recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born”, but that is not the issue. What is striking is how the greatest failing real or perceived of each is treated.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was an extremely talented and impressive person succeeding at just about everything he put his mind to – academics, athletics, and the arts as his Wikipedia bio describes. He was the class valedictorian at Rutgers, attained a law degree at Columbia University, was named an All-American collegiate football player and also played in the fledgling National Football League and proceeded on a long and highly regarded career as a singer and actor, all of this despite the very real racial prejudice and discrimination of the time. And that’s the rub. Although he opposed racial discrimination here in the United States and almost every biography describes him as a “civil rights advocate”, his record on human rights is really quite atrocious.
Paul Robeson Rutgers Football
He was a Marxist, a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) and a devoted and life-long supporter of Joseph Stalin even after he became aware of Stalin’s long list of crimes against humanity. This conservapedia biography of the man is more forthcoming on this aspect of Robeson than is Wikipedia which dances around the issue. Much of this was known about Robeson during his life, and after the end of the Cold War and the opening up of the Soviet archives more was either learned or confirmed. Despite this, his memory continues to receive awards and honors to this day. In a brief internet search, I could find no indication that his communism had led to any posthumous reconsideration of any such honors. Indeed, his most recent honoring just took place this month as his Alma mater, Rutgers, dedicated the Paul Robeson Plaza in his honor on April 15, 2019. The article I linked to and those singing his praises at the dedication were also careful to delicately omit this aspect of Robeson’s life and career.
This discrepancy in the treatment of Ms. Smith and Mr. Robeson for their failings is quite telling. For one of these two, their greatest moral shortcoming was that they either supported, or more likely, accepted and lived within the confines of an unjust racial system many decades ago, while for the other, their greatest moral shortcoming was that they avidly and knowingly supported one of the evilest regimes and ideologies of all time, one responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, the majority of whom were of the poor, hard-working type whose cause they claimed to champion. Only in a country whose moral compass was no longer pointing somewhere towards true north could we so misjudge which of these two was more worthy of praise, or at least acceptance and understanding, and which was more worthy of condemnation and maybe even eternal damnation.
Finally, Ms. Smith’s original introduction of “God Bless America”.