“God bless America, land that I love…”
For decades Kate Smith’s version of Irving Berlin’s beloved classic has proudly played in stadiums and arenas across the country. But no more.
Even though the New York Yankees have played the song during the seventh inning stretch since 9/11 — and hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers have played the song since 1969 — believing their on-ice-success increased with the musical blessing — both professional sports teams discontinued the practice last week.
After an anonymous tip from a sports fan, the Yankees and Flyers each announced they were stopping Smith’s rendition because of racist lyrics in a few of her other songs, specifically in her 1931 hit, “That’s Why Darkies Are Born.”
The tune originated from a Broadway revue and included the following lyrics:
“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…”
Some have suggested that the song was meant to be a satire of white supremacy, especially since it was also recorded at the time by Paul Robeson, the actor/singer and famous civil-rights activist, as he was black; my limited sense this far away and this many decades later is that such is hard to discern with certainty.
The reality is that the above words are wrong and inappropriate now. We walk in a “woke” world — one which is more alert to societal injustice.
But eight decades ago, we weren’t so “woke.” Hence, how is best for us to handle now?
Is it accurate to conclude Smith was a racist?
Note that Smith raised over $600 million for World War II, and before she passed away, Pres. Reagan awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. As shared by Reagan:
“The voice of Kate Smith is known and loved by millions of Americans, young and old. In war and peace, it has been an inspiration. Those simple but deeply moving words, ‘God bless America,’ have taken on added meaning for all of us because of the way Kate Smith sang them. Thanks to her they have become a cherished part of all our lives, an undying reminder of the beauty, the courage and the heart of this great land of ours. In giving us a magnificent, selfless talent like Kate Smith, God has truly blessed America.”
But still, does singing those lyrics make her a racist? And if she was a racist, should any acknowledgement of her now be allowed? Should we be giving her any credit or attention?
Please know I do not pen this post thinking I have it figured out nor know the exact right thing to do. I believe in deep respect for all ethnic heritage and wish intentional offense to no one.
Yet I still sit here somewhat puzzled…
Society is different now. What people know now is not what people knew then. What people accept now is not what they accepted decades ago. It’s different. Should history thus be erased? Should we remove any, even reference to another if it contradicts our current values?
I only ask the questions, friends.
But I do have more…
In a “woke” world, is there forgiveness for previous unawareness?
“From the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam,” can we forgive behaviors and beliefs which clash with today’s standards? Should we?
Again, I only ask the questions.