Et tu, Kate Smith?
Smith, Kate Smith, the big woman with the bigger voice who, in 1938, Irving Berlin gifted with “God Bless America”, our country’s other national anthem.
Kate Smith, the woman who raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help crush Hitler and Hirohito, who made Abbott & Costello stars, the woman who put the African-American expatriate and civil rights pioneer Josephine Baker on network television at the height of the McCarthy era and helped inspire the Philadelphia Flyers to Lord Stanley’s Cup.
That Kate Smith.
The Kate Smith who was born in 1907, 112 years ago, and who died in 1986, 33 years ago, and who now finds herself branded a racist by people who not only never met her, but never even heard of her.
Recently, the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team — who had adopted Smith as a good luck charm and honored her with a statue outside their arena — removed that statue in the dead of night as if Kate Smith were a Confederate general, and a really, really bad one, like Nathan Bedford Forrest. We also learned the New York Yankees had quietly dropped Smith’s iconic rendition of “God Bless America” from their 7th-inning stretch playlist. What could ol’ Kate have possibly done to bring on this postmortem shunning?
It turns out Kate’s sin was being of her time and place and race and having left behind recordings from that bygone era, specifically, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven.” This, of course, is intolerable for some in the tolerance movement that is running wild in our context-free, woke age.
Closer to home, another controversy rippled across the campus of Chapman University when two original posters for D.W. Griffith’s overtly racist 1915 masterpiece “The Birth of a Nation” were removed from the lobby of the prestigious Dodge College of Film and Media Arts building after students of color objected. Based on the 1905 Thomas Dixon novel “The Clansman,” both the movie and book played significant roles in the resurgence of the KKK in the early part of the 20th century.
Pretty black and white, right? Well, how about a few shades of grey?
“The Birth of a Nation” is one of the most important films ever made. It is often considered the first true feature film. It is unquestionably a cinematic masterpiece. It should be studied. If Chapman University had expunged “The Birth of a Nation” from its syllabus, banned future screenings and excluded it from classroom discussion, I would be writing a different column today. But Chapman removed two posters only, returning them to the DeMille family. You can study a film without honoring it.
At the 2004 Academy Awards, during the annual “In Memoriam” tribute, the producers included a final bow for director Leni Riefenstahl, whose executive producer was Adolph Hitler. While film historians acknowledge “The Triumph of the Will,” her “masterpiece,” as an important work of filmmaking, it’s hard to imagine any college campus displaying a one sheet for it in the lobby. Art is supposed to be about truth. Both “Triumph of the Will” and “The Birth of a Nation” are propaganda for immoral causes. So, what to do about Kate Smith?
In a word, nothing.
There is zero evidence Kate Smith was anything other than a wonderful person, a great American who served her country during an epic war and put her popularity on the line by inviting the controversial (and brilliant) Josephine Baker to appear on her television show. Of the 3,000 songs Smith recorded, two have been exhumed from eight decades ago and have been used to ruin her reputation for eternity. Yes, eternity. Vegas has nothing on Google. Once something is on the web it stays on the web.
So, “Kate Smith” and “racism” will pop up in search engines forever. The same way “McIntyre” and “bad hair” will show up. If it can happen to someone as benign as Kate Smith it can happen to anyone.
The first of the offending songs, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born”, was a satire of white supremacy from 1931, not an endorsement. The early civil rights legend Paul Robeson also recorded it. The second song, “Pickaninny Heaven,” is a long-forgotten kids’ song of its time and is deservedly forgotten. We may not like the ethnic stereotypes presented in movies and records from back in the day but we should at least understand them. The aforementioned Josephine Baker made her first mark in musical reviews at Harlem’s Plantation Club with titles such as “Shuffle Along” and “Chocolate Dandies” — does that make her an enabler? What about the rest of her life?
If we are to excommunicate artists from other eras of history because they made the mistake of being born when and where they were born then we will become the very people we claim to despise: book burners.
It’s more than ironic that the only two organizations that still celebrated Kate Smith, the Flyers and the Yankees, should be the cause of her fall from grace. Sports teams, like all commercial enterprises today, are hyper-sensitive to even the slightest hint of racism, sexism and pretty much any “ism.” The Flyers are particularly vulnerable because hockey is the whitest of the major American sports. Still, had they not yanked Smith’s statue and had the Yankees not banned Smith’s “God Bless America” from the House that Ruth Built, Kate would have remained safely entombed on Youtube and Wikipedia with Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and thousands of performers who were dead long before most people alive today were born.
Kate Smith has never been in my playlist. Her contralto voice is not my can of Pepsi. But this isn’t a referendum on Smith’s abilities. Once a major star, a really huge star, all the “Kate who’s?” in the last few days should be a cautionary tale for those of us who have sought fame. If Kate Smith can be forgotten, what chance do we have of being remembered? Still, given the choice, I’m sure Kate Smith would rather be forgotten than remembered for what she wasn’t.
As we strive for a fairer, freer, less judgmental world, a good place to start would be to stop judging men and women of the past by the standards of today. If the social media-driven cybermob continues to pull down everyone and everything that fails their ever-changing wokeness litmus test, “God Bless America” will soon become “God Help America.”
via Daily News