In the news this week was word that Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” had been banned by the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers. The reason for this ban was because it was learned that Ms. Smith had recorded some songs that were considered racist. The songs pointed out were “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” and “Pickaninny Heaven. Along with that I sense that people are judging Ms. Smith as being racist for singing these songs, which truthfully do contain wording that is fundamentally racist.
I am not here to defend the songs, but I do feel that we should not come down so hard on Ms. Smith. It was a different time then, things were main-stream that today would not be performed today. It is unfair to judge some aspects of the past by today’s standards because many of us do not understand the times. Honestly most of us do not understand the basics of our history, what the situation was, and who was in control of things that happened.
Also, since the Civil War we have had ebbs and flows of racial progress and racial decline where today the racial climate has come out in the open once again. And though it seems that we have lost ground, we must look at the positive (as hard as that might be), because in spite of the apparent “main-streaming” of White Supremacist activity that is playing in the news, from what I see, I feel that more and more people have a desire to become more involved in the process of coming to terms with our Racist history and our Racist Past. There is now a push to encourage communication between people of different backgrounds, a desire to connect and enlarge our circle of friends and community, a realization that that we cannot continue as we have been, and this gives me a great deal of hope.
I have my own thoughts as to why Ms. Smith sang those songs, and I feel they have nothing to do with her being deliberately racist. I try to learn a person’s history, especially when trying to assess motive to try to evaluate one’s motives. From what I understand about her, she had no love for the KKK though growing up in Virginia.
Ms. Smith also was a vocalist. The history of the music business from its beginnings up to the 60’s, the artists did not have much autonomy as to the material that they recorded. It was generally a group of old, white men record executives who controlled the record business. Their attitude towards Black people was not very good as they routinely robbed and cheated Black artists and took advantage of them as much as possible (if they signed them to their company at all). Also, it was not unusual for Black artists to perform racist material for the same reasons being they were told to do so.
I feel that the music of yesterday is just that, the music of the past and as such we should educate ourselves of this. We need to know and learn our history. We need to talk about our history, to use the art and culture of the past to teach us how we got here, and then use this knowledge to work towards solutions to make out lives and society better. We need to look to understand more that look to judge so we can work to make better decisions and to make progress.
The world today is different than it was when Ms. Smith made those recordings. Let us work to make society better now. And let’s not be so quick to judge those who came before.
Let’s not ban all of an artist’s music because of a couple of racist songs but do resist anything that insults our or anyone else’s sensibilities.