Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Oh for the love of James Weldon Johnson! So now they’re dragging out the corpse of singer Kate Smith to be pilloried because nobody in the upper reaches of popular culture had the humanity and common sense more than 80 years ago to acknowledge African Americans as anything but “darkies” and “pickaninnies.”
At the rate this country’s been going, they may actually get around to things like fair employment, racially-distended incarceration rates and equitable funding for public schools by my hundred-and-fifteenth birthday in 2067, at which point they can drag out my own corpse to tell it the good news before letting it go back to the mindless decay it needs and wants.
Here, however morbidly, is where I have always fixed the problem when yet another instance of “inappropriate language” blows up big and bright in the body politic, whether from the living or the dead: the gross distortion of national priorities and imperatives when it comes to dealing with both the myth of race and the reality of racism.
To review: It was disclosed last week that two of the songs from the 1930s heyday of the Virginia-born Ms. Smith, who died in 1986 at age 79, contained racist imagery – even in their title: 1931’s “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and 1933’s “Pickaninny Heaven.” (Trust me. The lyrics are even worse, and no amount of retrospective irony can shave off such an accumulation of sticky, rotten corn.)
Since then, two professional sports franchises have ceased using Smith’s all-but-definitive 1939 recording of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” as part of their game-time musical rotations.
The New York Yankees, who began regularly playing “God Bless America” in the middle of their seventh innings in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, announced they would no longer play Smith’s recording. The team had previously pulled Ronan Tynan from his regular post-season, seventh-inning stint of singing Irving Berlin’s anthem after Tynan allegedly made anti-Semitic remarks. (Tynan later apologized, claiming he was joking.)
Then there are the Philadelphia Flyers, whose emergence in the mid-1970s as the fabled, two-time, National Hockey League-champion “Broad Street Bullies” was emotionally, viscerally keynoted by Smith’s version of “God Bless America.” (During the team’s first Stanley Cup playoffs, Smith appeared in person to fire the already-fired-up Flyer faithful with a live rendition.)
But when news about the aforementioned racist songs surfaced last week, the Flyers announced they were not only dispensing with Smith’s recording, but first covering up and then removing a statue of Smith that the team erected near their South Philadelphia headquarters in 1987, the year after Smith died.
I can somewhat understand the Flyers’ position. They are sincerely and, I hear from sources, effectively trying to broaden their fan base beyond what was during their championship years perceived by the general public, unfairly or not, as predominantly white.
But history, however mortifying, demeaning or sickening, cannot be erased with cloaks and censure. Instead of sweeping such anachronistic, paternalistic claptrap under the proverbial rug, we should follow the lead of people like African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who this year has published a book (“Stony The Road,” Penguin Press) and is hosting a PBS documentary series (“Reconstruction”) that trace such dehumanizing, debilitating characterizations of black people in the pre-civil rights era directly to their post-Civil War sources.
Understanding before acting is always a better option.
As is, for that matter, channeling energies summoned by these events towards the more difficult, but longer-range engagements with eliminating disparities in housing, opportunities and everyday treatment under the law.
“Can’t we do both?” asks more than one friend of mine who thinks calling out racist behavior–even offensive songs from 80 years ago – for public disdain, and subduing institutional racism, are one and the same struggle.
My response usually goes something like this:
Sure, we can do both. But we never do!
Over the last couple of decades, celebrities like celebrity chef Paula Deen, radio shock-jock Don Imus and others have been shamed for saying stupid, inconsiderate and racially abusive things in public spaces, and every major media outlet has turned their misstep into a chew toy until some form of apology/punishment is summoned and the furor dies down.
Meanwhile, burning issues like unfair housing, unequal school funding and the rest remain underreported in the press. This leaves many Americans lulled into thinking that racism, to the extent they believe it exists at all, is little more than a lapse in manners that erupts, is slapped down and is gone again.
Cover-ups can be worse than the original crimes. Those Kate Smith songs were dreadful. But instead of making her a nonperson – shrouded and then removed from view entirely – wouldn’t we be better off if we instead turned our attention to continuing to learn how to regard the black people around us now as real, fully dimensional persons?
Just asking. And not just for myself.