In the weeks following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, one of the ways that New Yorkers tried to get back to life as usual was to turn to baseball. It was a time of outward displays of patriotism remembered by national audiences for George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch during the World Series. For Yankees fans, it was also the start of a tradition of playing “God Bless America” during games, usually the iconic version sung by Kate Smith.
But this season the Yankees have stopped playing Kate Smith after they found out that back in the 1930s she recorded two songs with racist lyrics. One of the songs, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” was written as a satire of racism, and also recorded by black civil rights activist Paul Robeson. The other song, “Pickaninny Heaven,” was featured in a 1933 movie.
The Philadelphia Flyers hockey team also stopped playing Smith, and removed a statue of her that was outside their arena.
As David Marcus points out, at the time that Smith recorded these songs, the Yankees, along with the rest of Major League Baseball, barred talented black athletes from playing on their team.
But there’s something beyond hypocrisy. It’s the increasingly broad standards that the contemporary outrage culture is trying to establish.
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The action against Smith would not be the first time that an artist was reevaluated based on contemporary standards of what’s considered offensive. But what’s different in this case is the transitive nature of the offense. That is, Smith herself did not write any of the songs in question, nor are the racist lyrics the ones being celebrated. Instead, her entire 60-year singing career is being called into question on the basis of two songs she recorded in the 1930s.
Thus, this goes beyond controversies such as whether schools should teach Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn given its attitudes on race and use of racial slurs, or assign Ernest Hemingway novels given the toxic masculinity flowing through them. It turns into: Should we drive out Obi-Wan Kenobi? Allow me to explain.
Charles Dickens is one of my favorite authors, but as somebody Jewish, whenever I read him I have to grapple with the fact that Oliver Twist features Fagin, arguably the most anti-Semitic character in the history of literature. Fagin is the greedy leader of a gang that kidnaps children and trains them to be pickpockets for him. In case there was any doubt about his background, Dickens refers to Fagin as “the Jew” literally hundreds of times throughout the novel.
By the Kate Smith standard, we should not only be wary of Oliver Twist, but we should call all other works of Dickens into question — Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield — and while you’re at it, you can cancel all performances of A Christmas Carol.
But we can’t really stop there, either. Dramatic portrayals of Fagin have been incredibly anti-Semitic. In the most iconic portrayal, Alec Guinness played Fagin in a 1948 film, adding extra makeup to give him an exaggerated cartoonishly Jewish nose as he clutched jewelry and spoke with a nasal whine.
The Kate Smith standard would suggest that not only should we drive that movie out of existence, but other works by Alec Guinness. That would mean calling into question "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (which shares director David Lean) and of course, "Star Wars," because the guy who played Obi-Wan Kenobi also performed a horrifically anti-Semitic Fagin.
The potential ramifications of this Kate Smith standard are endless. Should the anti-Semitic overtones many scholars see in “The Merchant of Venice” call into question not only the rest of Shakespeare’s works, but all the works of any actor who ever played Shylock?
“Gone With the Wind” is the highest grossing film of all time and considered one of the greatest movies ever made. But it’s also an apologetic for the racist slave-owning South, and has a scene in which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), by any modern definition of the action, commits marital rape against protagonist Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh), and she’s portrayed as having enjoyed it the next morning. Should that call into question all other Clark Gable movies? Or all the films produced by David O. Selznick?
This exercise can go on and on. But as our standards evolve on race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality, we should think carefully of how broadly we want to apply those standards to artists who came before us. Otherwise, we risk erasing the past.