Kate Smith Benched, But ‘God Bless America’ Stays in the Lineup. Huh?
In baseball news today, the New York Yankees revealed they have stopped playing Kate Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” because Smith sang several racially offensive songs.
In the 1930s.
Now maybe this is just the Yankees belatedly trying to make amends for being one of the last teams in Major League baseball to put a black player on the field.
Okay, probably not. Whatever the reason, the Yankees ended up making two errors on the same play.
First, self-righteously firing Kate Smith 33 years after she died.
Second, not using the occasion to simply stop the annoying custom of playing “God Bless America” at all.
Kate Smith’s offense: singing several songs, including “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven,” that are riddled with stereotypes of black folks. To our ears today, they’re painful. We wouldn’t expect to hear them anywhere outside of a Ku Klux Klan smoker.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, they were sung all the time. “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was written for a Broadway show, where it was framed as satire. Among those who sang it was Paul Robeson. If Kate Smith’s views were not progressive, Paul Robeson’s were.
The term “pickaninny” pops up in dozens of songs from the early 20th century, suggesting singers, record companies and presumably audiences heard it not as an insult, but a routine cultural reference.
With our 2019 eyes we can look back and say terms like that — and there were many — should have been seen as demeaning and condescending all along. That they were not speaks to both our modest progress in subsequent years and our deep historic strain of racial prejudice and insensitivity.
Early 20th century popular culture, like early 21st century popular culture, reflected racial attitudes. Some were weaponized (Birth of a Nation). Others chill us today with their casual indifference.
Fred Astaire performed in blackface. Judy Garland performed in blackface. Bing Crosby performed in blackface.
And so did many black performers from the early 20th century vaudeville era — suggesting again that however appalling we find it today, it was a norm of the time.
Black artists also recorded “coon songs” and sang songs with the n-word. The first two lines of “Old Man River,” the Show Boat classic that became one of America’s most enduring popular songs, both included the n-word when the musical opened on Broadway in 1927. Most black artists sang them that way for years.
Truth is, almost any other artist who performed extensively in that era probably sang or said something we would today consider offensive. To blacks, to women, to the LGBTQ community. To Asians. To Latinos. To the elderly. To the Irish.
To single out one artist and a handful of specific offensive works, in a sense, misses the point. The real problem of that era had far deeper roots: governments at all levels, segregated and unequal institutions, lack of education, limited voting rights, employment roadblocks, housing redlines, law enforcement bias and yes, even entertainment organizations like Major League baseball.
If we bust Kate Smith, we have to bust probably a majority of the artists from that era. Heck, we would probably have to bust a majority of our beloved Greatest Generation, who went along with and sometimes perpetrated the racial oppression we’re still struggling to address today.
Anyone without a racially insensitive person in the family tree from that era, raise your hand.
Didn’t think so.
Absent any indication Kate Smith was worse than most of her fellow Americans, or had a racial agenda when she sang a popular Broadway song, we’d be better off addressing the wider and more complex historical issues than feeling good for an inning or two by this posthumous scolding.
As for “God Bless America,” baseball needs to simply retire it.
It was okay as a short-term insertion in the immediate aftermath of September 11, when baseball teams began playing it, usually during the seventh inning stretch, as a reminder that in the bigger game we were all on the same team.
But all baseball games already start with the National Anthem and in the longer term that’s plenty of affirmation. We don’t need to sing another America song six and a half innings later.
Besides, we’ve already got a song for the seventh inning stretch: “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” It’s short, it’s catchy, it fits. It’s cool that the whole crowd knows to stand and sing. It’s a bond all baseball’s own.
“God Bless America,” no disrespect to God or America, doesn’t fit. Frankly, it feels a little like a challenge, like “stand up and prove you’re an American.”
If that needed to be established, the Anthem should be enough. Anyone who’s still there in the middle of the seventh inning shouldn’t have to prove he or she is anything more than a baseball fan.