The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What should we do with the anthems of our racist past?

A covered statue of singer Kate Smith stands outside the Philadelphia Flyers’ arena last week. (David Maialetti/AP)

The Yankees have cut Kate Smith. She was once an immensely popular singer who premiered “God Bless America” on her radio show in 1938. The song quickly became iconic and, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it became a staple of the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately for Smith’s legacy, she also recorded two racist ditties — “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” When this was recently rediscovered, Smith was sent down to the minors.

The Yankees moved with commendable alacrity — as did the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. Neither team bothered to say if Smith was indeed a racist or had merely recorded the songs of the times. That these songs are insultingly racist is beyond question but so, for that matter, was much of popular culture before the civil rights era. “Pickaninny” was featured in a 1933 film, and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” comes from the same age. Its lyrics make blackface seem downright woke.

“Someone had to pick the cotton/Someone had to plant the corn/ Someone had to slave and be able to sing/ that’s why darkies were born.”

These episodes of recovered racism are useful. They are reminders of how indelibly racist America once was — a culture that not only embraced (or forgave) the Jim Crow fascism of the South but managed in song and film to regularly insult African Americans and demean them as somehow less than fully human. A mere song can alert you to how life was for a black person. A person could pass an open window and hear a radio playing a racist insult.

But if Smith can be condemned on the basis of two songs, what are we to make of Paul Robeson, truly a black superhero before his time? He was a star college football player, gifted student, powerful singer, commanding actor (“Show Boat,” “Othello”) and, to the end of his days, a radical and fiery civil rights activist. He, too, recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” Possibly, his take was ironic. To my ears, Robeson’s version is just overwhelmingly sad.

And what about Frank Sinatra? Ol’ Blue Eyes was a walking compendium of faults — violent, obscene, misogynistic and mobbed up — but he was no racist. He supported liberal causes and befriended Sammy Davis Jr. when it was not easy to do so — especially after Davis married May Britt, known in tabloidese as the blonde, Swedish bombshell.

Sinatra recorded the evocative standard “Without a Song” in 1941 using the original racist lyric — “a darkie’s born, but he’s no good no how, without a song.” He did that once, but never again. In later recordings, the obnoxious word is gone. Should Sinatra be banned?

Our national yesterday is horrendously racist. The more we excavate the past, the more shocked we become. We want to eradicate the blemishes and topple the statues and monuments to what, after all, was evil. It is right that we do not honor slavers and their defenders. We cannot enslave the present by forcing it to honor the dishonorable past.

But some perspective is in order. Kate Smith did not write the racist songs she sang. And while in her later years she came to represent right-wing reaction — she lent herself on July 4, 1970, to a rally that supported the Vietnam War — she is at least once removed when it comes to racism. Indeed, the Yankees themselves are hardly without fault in this area. It took the team eight years after Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues in 1947 for them to field Elston Howard. By then, 12 teams had already signed black players.

Time writes and rewrites history. “God Bless America” was once denounced by the Ku Klux Klan because it was written by Irving Berlin, an immigrant Jew infatuated by his adopted country. It then transmuted into a right-wing anthem, especially after Woody Guthrie, sick of hearing Smith sing it on the radio, countered with the Depression-era “This Land Is Your Land.” Now, it is merely a great song, blanched by time of political meaning — the stirring patriotic response to the murders of Sept. 11, 2001.

At Yankee Stadium, Smith is gone. She was last seen by me singing “God Bless America” at that 1970 rally. As she sang, large numbers of antiwar protesters waded through the Reflecting Pool on the Mall, smoking dope and hurling f-bombs her way. In one ear, I heard Smith singing and in the other the proper profanity of a pissed-off generation. It was an extremely American afternoon.

God bless America.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

Read more:

Colbert I. King: Why is racism still thriving? Ask the enablers.

Jan Miles: Racism isn’t dead. Black Americans still need a ‘Green Book.’

Fred Hiatt: Racism, rape and judging the past

Jerry Kaplan: Why your AI might be racist

Mark J. Rozell: How Virginia’s politicians can make a real difference on issues of race