Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” as recorded in 1939 by Kate Smith (1907-86), the Virginia-born “Songbird of the South,” is the iconic version of an iconic American patriotic song. After the 9/11 attacks, it became a seventh inning-stretch staple of the New York Yankees and subsequently was taken up by teams in several sports.
Recently, a couple of Smith’s earlier recordings, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven,” came to light, suddenly turning the singer into an icon of racism. Her “God Bless America” disappeared from sporting events; the Philadelphia Flyers removed a statue of Smith from the courtyard of their stadium.
American popular culture was long replete with language and images now seen rightly as racist or ethnically insensitive. African-Americans weren’t alone: Vaudeville shows, films and songs played on stereotypes of the Irish, Italians, Jews, Latinos, American Indians, Asians – any group seen as an “other.”
The modern ethos – you can only make fun of your own – is of very recent vintage.
The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, noting that “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was also recorded by Paul Robeson, one of the great African-American singers of the mid-20th century, sought the perspective of two current black voices.
“There’s no statute of limitations when it comes to racism,” bass-baritone Morris Robertson says, while conceding that “the mind-set of 1931 is not the mind-set of 2019 – at least, not openly.”
“If we go through history and we really take out everything that a person who’s controversial has done, that’s also robbing us of some of our American history,” tenor Lawrence Brownlee observes. Still, he says, “We’re not losing the song. There are other people who have sung it who can do it.”