There is not a cadaver in the nation’s 242-year history that is off-limits to being exhumed and examined for moral failings or evidence of contemporary bias. We resurrect people to slay them anew and to rewrite their eulogies.
Earlier this month, we exhumed Kate Smith, a famous American singer who died in 1986. Cultural morticians are now busy reconstructing her legacy and the meaning of her life. She is now being shunned by some as a de facto racist because of at least two songs she recorded early in her career.
Years before Smith recorded her famous version of “God Bless America,” a national treasure, she recorded a song called “That’s Why Darkies Are Born.”
The latter song is an abomination by modern cultural standards. In 1931 it proved to be a hit. The song is nothing more than lyrical blackface, a casual ode to slavery that has been described by some as satire. Those who advance the notion of the song as satire are quick to point out that Paul Robeson, the famous black tenor and orator, also recorded the song:
“Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born.”
One can only wonder what Smith would say of this awful song were she alive today. Would she apologize? Would she defend the song as a relic of Depression-era America? Or, would she merely shrug it off?
That’s the problem with de facto exhumation. You can’t examine the heart of the person or put their work in context.
That didn’t stop the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers from immediate action against Smith. When news of the song’s existence was revealed, both the Yankees and the Flyers quickly separated themselves from the artist and her work. The Yankees issued a statement saying that they would no longer play her recording of God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch, and the Flyers have removed the statue of Smith that had stood outside its arena since 1987.
The Yankees, who had been playing Smith’s version of the song since shortly after the September 11th, terrorist attacks, learned of Smith’s offensive song from a fan’s email.
That’s how easily the evisceration of an American icon can occur. One day, Smith rested comfortably in her grave, renowned as a musical genius and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The next day, her favorite hockey team had covered her head with a sheet.
In February 1976, Smith performed a week long series of concerts at Cleveland’s Front Row in Highland Heights. Her health was already declining, and she would soon stop her national tours. But the sold-out audiences connected with the aging musician. She closed all of her sets with “God Bless America.”
Jane Scott, the venerable Plain Dealer Rock Critic, attended the Wednesday concert and wrote a glowing review. She noted Smith’s “majestic voice” and “booming, hearty manner.” She described her as “old fine wine.”
Scott, America’s first major female rock critic and a beloved figure in popular culture, also penned these words in her review words, which by today’s standards, seem insensitive:
“The big lady with the bigger voice made the night bright and cheery for us all at the Front Row … The years have been kind to Kathryn Elizabeth Smith, now 67. She is still a large woman, but her skin is surprisingly smooth, and her voice is as vibrant as ever.”
Without intention, Scott body-shamed Smith, who had spent a lifetime battling obesity. It just goes to say, we’re all creatures of our time and should be judged by the body of our work and ability to evolve.
Kate Smith had a catalog of hundreds of songs. Two of those songs have come back to haunt her from the grave. Nonetheless, the body of her work stands. God blessed America with Kate Smith...