Last week, the sports world was thrown into a tizzy about one of the oldest recordings of one of the country’s most beloved songs. Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America” during World War I and then revised it in 1938, when it was recorded by the singer Kate Smith. For many years now, the Smith rendition has been played by a couple of major sports franchises at home games.
But then a tipster helped those franchises connect the dots between Smith, who died in 1986, and two recordings she made of the songs “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven” in the early 1930s — perhaps meant innocuously at the time, certainly unacceptably racist today. As a result, the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they would no longer play Smith’s “God Bless America.” The Flyers even removed a statue of Smith that had stood in front of the team’s stadium for years.
To some, this seemed like overkill. The mores of the early 1930s were not our own; was it fair to proscribe Smith on the basis of recordings made early in her career? After all — as apologists this week have pointed out — Paul Robeson, the great African American bass singer, recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” The song, they say, was written as satire. Certainly it’s darkly ironic when Robeson sings it.
Others view the issue differently. I spoke to two African American opera singers who have performed “God Bless America” and the national anthem at ballparks: Morris Robinson, a bass-baritone who played football for The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, before going into opera full time, and Lawrence Brownlee, a tenor and die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers and Ohio State fan. Neither had heard about the controversy before I called them, and both had nuanced views of the situation. I came away thinking that the teams’ decisions had been right.
“There’s no statute of limitations when it comes to racism,” Robinson says. He concedes that “the mind-set of 1931 is not the mind-set of 2019 — at least, not openly.” And yet there must be clear signs that certain things will no longer be tolerated. “We have people now who have things on Twitter from three, four, five years ago who can’t host the Oscars” because of what they wrote then, Robinson points out.
Says Brownlee: “We’re not losing the song. There are other people who have sung it who can do it.”
Part of the point is to make sure you’re sending the audience the right signal. Continued allegiance to Smith might imply that the team doesn’t care about its black supporters.
“In a sport like hockey, which is 99.9 percent white,” Brownlee says, “I can understand why they would want to strip away something that would be a deterrent to other races getting involved.”
Is this political correctness gone overboard? Not really. You have to look at what the song symbolized in the first place.
“God Bless America,” like the national anthem, is not being presented at the ballpark as a work of art. These songs are symbols, presented in a spirit of bringing people together. When you call a symbol into question, it no longer works. And there’s no denying that after you’ve seen the video of Smith singing to a group of young black children about a paradise filled with large watermelons, it’s hard to shake the image. (If you haven’t seen it, you may not be able to for a while; a user removed the video from YouTube early this week.)
It’s one thing to try to get past this by listening to other Smith recordings and coming to terms with what one feels for oneself. It’s another thing to have to deal with it in the ballpark, over a subpar recording — surrounded by thousands of people who are likely to have strong opinions about it one way or another — over and over again.
There’s a larger subtext at play, as well. Patriotic songs such as “God Bless America” have tended, certainly since the late 20th century, to be associated with a white, conservative side of the country. A big shift came with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when patriotism began to unite everybody again. It was after those attacks that the New York baseball teams, and soon all of Major League Baseball, began having “God Bless America” played or sung during the seventh-inning stretch. It is, in short, a new tradition, established in a spirit of bringing the country together. We don’t have many symbols like that, and any element of divisiveness undoes the significance of the gesture.
Look at the confusion surrounding the national anthem in the wake of Colin Kaepernick, and other football players, taking a knee during the anthem to recognize those killed by police violence. Kaepernick’s gesture was reframed as being disrespectful to the flag and the country.
When Brownlee sang the national anthem before a New York Jets-Baltimore Ravens game in 2016, he put out a statement about his conflict, as a black man, in singing the song while wanting to show support for Kaepernick, a fellow member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
“I feel strongly that my singing career and the public stage it offers me must also bring with it a sense of responsibility, and a duty to do what is right,” he wrote. “I asked myself whether or not I should sing or stand in silent solidarity. . . . In the end, I decided to use the voice that God has given me to sing . . . with the conflicting emotions that pull at my heart . . . the honor, the pride, the frustration, the sadness.”
A similar misunderstanding about symbolic weight colors the Smith debate. It isn’t really about the music, but about the symbol, and symbols are things that people cling to all the more tightly when they feel threatened. To read some of the commentary, you might think that Smith’s “God Bless America” was an integral part of American baseball, rather than one take on a tradition that is only 18 years old.
Smith’s particular history with the Flyers, a hockey team, goes back further, to 1969, when some team officials, looking for a way to pep up flagging spirits, decided to play her “God Bless America” recording instead of the national anthem. (Imagine the reaction today if anyone tried to forgo a pregame national anthem performance.) The team ended up winning, and Smith went on to become a kind of good-luck mascot, performing at a few games and even getting her own statue at the stadium. But this tradition has less significance to today’s fans; you could argue that it had already run its course.
You can’t edit out of history everything you don’t like. “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,” Brownlee says.
But there’s also no need to pretend that the ballpark is the best arena in which to appreciate nuance or conduct reasoned debate about the significance of a piece of music. It’s less a question of censoring Smith altogether than of finding other appropriate places in which to encounter her work. Robinson draws a parallel to Civil War memorials in Charlottesville: “Put it in a museum,” he says, a context more appropriate for critical engagement. But leave the ballpark to the ballgames, with symbols appropriate to accompany them.