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Kate Smith’s racist songs aren’t surprising, but we can do more than cover up a statue

Everywhere you look in American history, racism coexists with something noble

I like baseball and, despite so much, I love my country, but I’ve never been one to stand and belt out “God Bless America” at the ballpark. Somehow, it always feels like some intolerant attitudes are lurking behind the beautiful ode to our nation, especially when it is being sung by 40,000-plus beer-drinking revelers.

I feel the same wariness when I happen down a block with a bunch of homes displaying the American flag, or when I cross paths with a pickup truck that has the Stars and Stripes flapping in the breeze. When layered thickly, displays of patriotism can feel threatening, especially if you’re black.

Given that, you might be surprised that I mostly shrugged when I heard the news that the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers are doing what they can to create distance between themselves and Kate Smith, the singer who recorded the iconic song often sung at sporting events.

It turns out that Smith recorded at least two songs that were hits in the early 1930s but are now seen for what they are: racist riffs. One is called “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” It starts, “Someone had to pick the cotton, someone had to slave and be able to sing, that’s why darkies were born.” The other is titled, “Pickaninny Heaven,” which also brims with racist language and was featured in the film Hello, Everybody! starring Smith.

After the New York Daily News published a story last week informing readers of Smith’s early recordings, the Yankees immediately discontinued their tradition, started in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, of playing Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch. Meanwhile, the Flyers said they would stop playing the song after being associated with it for the past half-century. The team also covered up and then later removed a statue of Smith that has stood outside its arena since 1987.

“The NHL principle ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ is at the heart of everything the Flyers stand for,” team president Paul Holmgren said in a statement. “As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today.”

A television photographer records the partially covered statue of singer Kate Smith near the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on April 19. The Philadelphia Flyers covered the statue of Smith outside their arena, following the New York Yankees in cutting ties and looking into allegations of racism against the 1930s star whose popular rendition of “God Bless America” was frequently played at Flyers and Yankees home games over the years. Flyers officials said they also plan to remove Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” from their library. They say several songs performed by Smith “contain offensive lyrics that do not reflect our values as an organization.”

AP Photo/Matt Slocum

I suppose the Yankees and the Flyers did what they had to do. They would have had hell to pay if they ignored Smith’s past. But, personally, I am more interested in seeing teams create an inclusive present and future — by hiring more diverse front-office staff, doing business with a more diverse mix of vendors, investing more in the cities they play in — than in the endless task of trying to exorcise racist demons from a past littered with them.

Everywhere you look in American history, there is racism both flagrant and internalized. More often than you might think, it coexists with something noble.

Former President Woodrow Wilson was a globalist, but he also was determined to resegregate the federal civil service. Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the father of the New Deal, which created a social safety net for millions of Americans. But he would not support anti-lynching legislation for fear of alienating Southern Democrats.

Walter White, who served as executive secretary of the NAACP for a quarter-century and courageously led crusades against lynching and other white-on-black violence, wrote a 1949 article in Look magazine saying skin lightening cream could hold the key to racial harmony by physically erasing the color line.

The passage of time and evolving sensibilities can make us all look foolish. Little wonder Smith’s descendants say they are heartbroken by the swift banishments that followed revelations of her past work.

Smith was one of the nation’s biggest musical artists from the 1930s to the 1960s. She burst on the scene just after minstrel shows and a subgenre of ragtime called coon songs (racist tracks not unlike the ones now being resurrected) were all the rage.

Recording artists, some of whom were black, took part in the tradition — which, as outrageous as it sounds now, was popular and frowned-upon only in retrospect. Paul Robeson, the star athlete turned singer, actor and activist who was woke long before the term was coined, recorded a version of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which some have defended as a satirical tune.

It might well have been. If so, what are we to make of it? One thing we do know is how pervasive overt racism was at the time, and how much its progeny continues to infect our society today.

The songwriter Irving Berlin first penned “God Bless America” back in 1918. He did not have it recorded until two decades later, when he updated the song and gave it to Smith to perform on her radio show. It was a hit. But before long, the song was under attack from the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi-affiliated German American Bund, who boycotted the song because Berlin was both Jewish and an immigrant and thus, they believed, could not evoke God or call the U.S. “home sweet home.”

God bless America.

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.