Nothing demonstrates both the political self-satisfaction and the psychological insecurity of the present than the rush to take historical figures out of the context of their time and deny them any fair evaluation. Such is the case with the sudden proscription by the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers of Kate Smith, the popular singer from more than a half century ago whose famous rendition of Irving Berlin’s song "God Bless America" lately was being played at Yankees baseball games and Flyers hockey games.
Smith became prohibitively politically incorrect the other day when it was discovered that in the 1930s she recorded two songs that are being described as racist, which is too harsh.
One song, "That's Why Darkies Were Born," was recorded not just by Smith but also by the black singer and civil rights crusader Paul Robeson. The song is more plausibly construed as expressing sympathy and admiration for black people for refusing to let their brutally unfair burdens crush them spiritually.
The other song, "Pickaninny Heaven," which Smith sang in a movie in 1933, uses that racially derogatory term and racial stereotypes in the course of her consoling black orphans about an afterlife in which they would see their mothers again. The song's stereotypes are awful but its intent was patronizing, not vicious.
While Smith was renowned as "the songbird of the South," she does not seem to have left much of a record in regard to racial issues. But she was a national heroine for providing encouraging music during the Great Depression and then, during World War II, for singing for the troops and helping to sell more war bonds than any other celebrity. So beloved was she that, introducing her to the king and queen of the United Kingdom in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, "Miss Smith is America."
President Reagan seems to have more or less concurred, awarding Smith the Medal of Freedom in 1982.
Now all Smith's good work is apparently to be erased and a statue of her that was erected outside the Flyers' arena because she was a fan of the team has been removed as if she had been more politically retrograde than the rest of the country. But presumably the Yankees' and Flyers' box offices and vendors will continue making change with dimes, on which Roosevelt's image remains engraved, though he put U.S. citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps during World War II and was elected president four times with the support of the segregationist South. (At least Roosevelt won the war, thereby defeating a few monstrous tyrannies.)
With Smith's "God Bless America" banished, maybe Yankees and Flyers games will stick to the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," though its tune is much harder to sing and though its lyrics were written by Francis Scott Key, who, even as he lauded "the land of the free and the home of the brave," owned slaves, just as George Washington and many other Founding Fathers did. Their statues aren't coming down yet.
Where does this politically correct nonsense end? Cannot most people understand that American history especially is part of what is called the ascent of man, the gradual if grossly uneven improvement of moral standards in pursuit of justice? If only the perfect can be honored or even remembered fondly, history has no point.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.