My father hated Kate Smith. Hated her. The jumbo alto radio star from the Thirties and Forties was still showing up on TV variety shows in the Sixties and Seventies, and my father always made us change the channel when she appeared. Smith had made a virtual career out of belting her four-square rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” and Dad regarded it as patriotic pandering and exploitation. Thus it seemed appropriate that two teams we all hated in Boston, the New York Yankees and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, periodically used the recording of Smith—and sometimes Smith herself— singing the song during games. Once 9-11 caused baseball to add the song during all games at the Seventh Inning Stretch (time to end that, by the way), Kate’s immortality seemed assured, especially in Yankee Stadium, where her rendition was rotated with a few other versions.
Then some enterprising social justice fanatics and “Hader Gotcha!” masters decided to do a deep dive and find something on Kate Smith. What they found was that among her hits in the Thirties were two songs that make Stephen Foster seem like Snoop Dog. One was “Pickaninny Heaven,” which described a “colored” paradise with “great big watermelons,” and the momentarily famous “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which we will look at in some detail later. These presentist censors—remember, presentism is the fallacy of judging conduct from the past by the updated ethics and values of the present—protested to the Yankees, and that’s all it took to get Kate banished, presumably forever. (The Flyers have also banned Kate.) The mighty Yankees whimpered in a public statement,
“The Yankees have been made aware of a recording that had been previously unknown to us and decided to immediately and carefully review this new information,. The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously. And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.”
Of course, that is a final conclusion. The Yankees want to avoid any criticism, so they are cravenly placing Kate in investigative limbo hoping that they can distract baseball fans and sane people from protesting the absurd slippery slope the Yankees just leaped onto. This wasn’t Kate, this was the most popular recording of a patriotic song about America, written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish World War I veteran who also wrote “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and a zillion other songs. Virtually nobody remembers Kate’s poor choice in songs before World War II, and to shelve her better work because of them is unfair and extreme. Speaking of Bing, he sang a racially insensitive song (“Abraham”) by Irving in the film “Holiday Inn,” dressed in blackface, surrounded by black children and chorus members doing their best “Gone With The Wind” imitations. Does that mean playing Bing’s iconic “White Christmas” is now “insensitive”? Does that make the Bing’s movie “White Christmas” similarly offensive (“Abraham” is heard on the soundtrack at one point)?
I bet with a little research almost all actors and performers of yore can be erased from our culture using a rigid presentist standard and guilt by association. In “Gone With The Wind,” Scarlett, played by film great Vivian Leigh, calls Butterfly McQueen’s character Prissy “a simple-minded darkie.” So much for the movie and Leigh. Clark Gable and Olivia de Havilland played characters who loved that racist played by Leigh, as did Thomas Mitchell, who played her doting father. Down the Political Correctness Memory Hole with Kate and Robert E. Lee go “It Happened One Night,” “Mogambo,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Mister Smith Goes To Washington” and many, many more. Lawrence Olivier married that racist Leigh, so he’s a racism enabler–can’t show “Spartacus,” “Hamlet,” “Wuthering Heights” or “Pride and Prejudice,” I guess. Using six degrees of separation, I bet we can get Kevin Bacon banned as a racist before you know it. (Actually, Kevin was in that racist comedy “Animal House” (“THE NEGROES STOLE OUR DATES!”), so he goes down the hole with Kate anyway.
This is the American version of Mao’s cultural revolution, and it only stops, if it stops, when organizations and institutions like the New York Yankees stop grovelling to every progressive scold and stand up for America’s history and art. How are they going to deal with this, for example (That’s Kate on the left)?
I am reminded of a quote from French balladeer Jacques Brel, who said, “If we leave it to them, they will crochet the world the color of goose shit.”
Now back to “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.”
It was actually a satirical song ridiculing racism, from the 1931 Broadway review George White’s Scandals. White was a liberal for his time, and an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow. Obviously the song was understood in context, for Paul Robeson, the black singer, actor and civil rights advocate, sang the song, once even dueting with Kate Smith. The lyrics make it clear—if one cares about context and isn’t just trying to exert power over the culture—that this isn’t just a racist ballad.
Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Someone had to laugh at trouble,
Though he was tired and worn,
Had to be contented with any old thing,
That’s why darkies were born;
Sing, sing, sing when you’re weary and
Sing when you’re blue,
Sing, sing, that’s what you taught
All the white folks to do;
Someone had to fight the Devil,
Shout about Gabriel’s Horn,
Someone had to stoke the train
That would bring God’s children to green pastures,
That’s why darkies were born.
The catch line “That’s why darkies were born” became a punch line for a while, as comedians and writers signaled that they got the song’s tongue in cheek point. In the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, when Groucho Marx says, “My father was a little headstrong, my mother was a little armstrong. The Headstrongs married the Armstrongs, and that’s why darkies were born.” [Oops! Groucho was a racist, which means the Marx Brothers were racists, which means Groucho glasses have to be banned!) The reference was excised from television prints of “Duck Soup” film in the early 1970s, because it presumably would make audiences feel “unsafe.”
When it comes to razing our culture and history so the nation can be re-made as a woke utopia, nuance doesn’t matter, context doesn’t matter, reason doesn’t matter. All that matters is power and control over our minds, ideas, and speech. These small and seemingly trivial surrenders add up to long-term disaster. Personally, I wouldn’t care if I never heard Kate sing “God Bless America” again. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anyone tell me I can’t, or that I’m a racist if I do.