The embarrassment of Kate Smith

Kate Smith (Photo provided by the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society)

In response to the title of Elizabeth Izzo’s article, “Did Kate Smith make up for racist songs,” I would suggest an answer in the negative, although perhaps her historical embarrassment may be put to good use in well-meaning dialogue. Kate Smith’s admirable words in her 1945 plea for tolerance certainly are a welcomed contrast to her profile as a singer in the previous decade, intoning explicitly racist songs about “pickanninies” and “darkies.” However, her 1945 statement, as published, suggests a context that very likely had little or nothing to do with how the singer felt about the so-called “racial issue” in the U.S.

Kate Smith was a Virginian, and as a white woman of that stripe, and in the generation in which she lived, it is not unfair to assume that she held a view of African Americans that was quite prevalent. It is no surprise to learn from a report in USA Today (Apr. 21, 2019) that Smith also endorsed a “Mammy Doll,” which reportedly was “based on a racist caricature of a black woman in the same vein as Aunt Jemima.” Smith undoubtedly shared the same orientation that many whites held in her era which included the sentimentalization of racist caricatures like watermelon-eating “coons,” black babies used as bait to catch alligators, black “lawn jockeys” and black “mammies,” of course. These images were rife in the early 20th century, nor was their popularity limited to the South.

The point is not that Kate Smith was a racist ogre. One would hope that along the arc of her career, her worldview broadened. One might argue from her 1945 remarks that this is precisely what happened. The problem is that it is quite possible — and it still is in many cases — to hold selective sympathies when it comes to racial prejudice.

Even a cursory examination of Smith’s 1945 remarks do not give her a pass for her role in the cultural trafficking of racism. Her remarks, given the context in which they are provided in Izzo’s article, suggest Smith was thinking about the tragedy of nationalist conflicts, not home-grown white racism. Indeed, Smith’s words seem to have pertained to the struggles abroad surrounding World War II.

“I’m not an expert on foreign affairs,” she says as she discusses “armies of occupation,” “military strategists” and the “peoples of the world” learning tolerance. To be sure, her words include “race hatreds” and “social prejudices,” but the fact that she speaks of “religious bigotry” may at best hint at concern for the Jewish people abroad. While this is admirable, this does not automatically vindicate Smith in regard to her domestic racism.

The U.S. was founded on the contradictions of a liberal (yet) slaveholding leadership. The same man who wrote of the self-evident truths of equality was also a slaveholder who privately wrote of the inferiority of Africans. Notions of freedom and equality have always run concurrently with notions of racial and cultural hierarchy. The very best of U.S. heroes from Jefferson to Lincoln were painfully aware of the contradiction of democracy and chattel slavery, yet both men held notions of racial bigotry and white superiority. In the early 20th century, the cultural and social histories of the U.S. — including the “official” narrative concerning black people — were written in deference to white superiority and the essential goodness of the old slaveholding society, including especially Kate Smith’s Virginia, which was often romanticized and memorialized in cinema as having been essentially heroic and benign.

Kate Smith was a child of her age. Her views unfortunately were quite common among whites. She should not be posthumously scandalized as if she were an aberration. Like other embarrassed white figures of the past, the issue unfortunately has become what to do with the icon rather than rethinking the narrative of the U.S. itself by confessing the sins and failures of our nation, and then struggling forward with an uncompromising commitment to justice. If we think that pulling down or covering statues (as was done to the statue of Kate Smith at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center) is solving the issue, we are sorely mistaken. As a nation we are still struggling to hang on to a stylized, sentimentalized notion of the past. Meanwhile the complexion and culture of this nation has permanently changed. We are not Kate Smith’s “America,” nor should we be. Divided and conflicted, nevertheless we are evolving and changing — including a growing number of whites who lament the injustices of our past, as well as non-whites who demand their rightful share in the dreams and aspirations of “America.” As Jesus taught, it is foolish to put new wine into old wineskins. The current national debate about MAGA is not so much about whether we want “America” to be great, but whether we want to define our goals by the “again” of the past. The embarrassment of Kate Smith should not shock us, but rather remind us once again of the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the enshrined “American” past.

These may not be universally welcomed words, but they must be said in love for the nation: Many U.S. “heroes” in politics, culture and the arts stood on feet of iron and clay when it came to racism. This is why the figure of John Brown the abolitionist is so important — and why he will increasingly become vital to well-meaning whites who are awakening to the truth of the U.S. past. Among a few white men and women of his time, John Brown actually was a man of the future. His values and commitment to freedom and racial justice befitted the nation as it should have been, not as it was. John Brown would not be content to sing “God Bless America” unless all the peoples of this nation could enjoy equality and justice. While some may appreciate Kate Smith’s talents, history has already consigned her to a past fraught with contradictions and injustices. The embarrassment of Kate Smith is yet another installment in a story that is far from over.

Louis A. DeCaro Jr., Ph.D., lives in New York City, is a biographer of John Brown and serves as an instructor in Christian history and theology at Alliance Theological Seminary in New York City.

COMMENTS