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The history-cleansing brigade

The covered Kate Smith statue sits outside Wells

The covered Kate Smith statue sits outside Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on April 19, 2019. Credit: AP/David Maialetti

Margaret Sanger is an American heroine. She opened our country’s first birth-control clinic and helped found Planned Parenthood, which brought reproductive services to millions of women. But Sanger also endorsed the racist pseudo-science of eugenics, promoting contraception and sterilization to limit population growth among immigrants and African-Americans.

So should we take down statues and other memorials to her? That’s what 25 House Republicans said in 2015, petitioning the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to remove a bust of Sanger.

But in a country marked by four centuries of bigotry and discrimination, many notable figures engaged in some form of it. Removing those people from our view actually lets us whitewash racism, all in the guise of fighting it.

And that brings us to Kate Smith, the latest target of the history-cleansing brigade. After newspapers reported that Smith had performed several racist songs, the New York Yankees said they would suspend for now playing her iconic version of “God Bless America” at their games. So did my hometown Philadelphia Flyers, who also took down a statue of Smith erected outside of their arena.

Smith had performed “God Bless America” live on the night the Flyers won the 1974 Stanley Cup, which triggered a virtual Cult of Kate in the City of Brotherly Love. As Philly die-hards will remind you, the Flyers won three games and lost one when Smith sang live; in games where her recorded version was played, the team has won 100, lost 31 and tied five.

But now her good luck has run out. Noting that Kate Smith performed songs that “evoke painful and unacceptable themes,” the Flyers declared that they would stop playing Smith’s “God Bless America” — and would take down her statue — “to ensure the sentiments stirred this week are no longer echoed.”

Good luck with that. Racism echoes through the entire history of American entertainment, as Smith’s career shows. It isn’t just that Smith performed “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven,” the two songs that most news reports have flagged. Like so many other white singers, from Al Jolson to Elvis Presley, she founded her art on racial imitation and parody.

In 1926, the first New York Times review of Smith’s performance described her with a term that referred to white performers who sang and danced in styles associated with African-Americans.

The following year, Smith wore blackface to play the role of a “mammy” in a New York musical. She soon became a sensation on the radio, where her mimicry of black dialect made some listeners wonder about her racial background. As late as 1941, an African-American in Arkansas wrote to The Chicago Defender weekly newspaper to ask whether Kate Smith was “white or colored.”

Eliminating her song or statue won’t make this history go away; it will only make it harder to remember. The better solution is always to add knowledge, not subtract it, so all of us learn how race has impacted our past.

So baseball games might couple Smith’s version of “God Bless America” with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which some have called the “Negro national anthem,” composed by James Weldon Johnson. And Smith’s statue could include a plaque describing her career, including its blackface roots.

Here we could take a page from the National Portrait Gallery, where the label next to Margaret Sanger’s statue notes her association with the eugenics movement. That doesn’t take away anything from Sanger, any more than Smith’s racist behavior minimizes her achievements. It simply acknowledges that they were marked by America’s original sin.

What will your statue look like? And are you sure others will like it? Think about that, the next time you want to take down someone else’s. You might not like what you see.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania.

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