Character Excavation

Posted: January 18, 2020 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Music, Tacky
Tags: , , , , , , ,

One of the victims of cancel culture, coming to my attention only days ago, is Kate Smith (1907–1986), a singer of American popular song. Though Smith had a singing career spanning five decades, she is best remembered for her version(s) of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which justifiably became a bit of Americana. The decades of Smith’s peak activity were the 1930s and 40s.

/rant on

I dunno what goes through people’s heads, performing purity rituals or character excavation on folks long dead. The controversy stems from Smith having a couple other songs in her discography: That’s Why Darkies Were Born (1931) and Pickaninny Heaven from the movie Hello, Everybody! (1933). Hate to break it anyone still living under a rock, but these dates are not far removed from minstrelsy, blackface, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) — a time when typical Americans referred to blacks with a variety of terms we now consider slurs. Such references were still used during the American civil rights movement (1960s) and are in use among some virulent white supremacists even today. I don’t know the full context of Kate Smith having sung those songs, but I suspect I don’t need to. In that era, popular entertainment had few of the sensibilities regarding race we now have (culture may have moved on, but it’s hard to say with a straight face it’s evolved or progressed humanely), and uttering commonly used terms back then was not automatic evidence of any sort of snarling racism.

I remember having heard my grandparents, nearly exact contemporaries of Kate Smith, referring to blacks (the term I grew up with, still acceptable I think) with other terms we no longer consider acceptable. It shocked me, but to them, that’s simply what blacks were called (the term(s) they grew up with). Absolutely nothing in my grandparents’ character or behavior indicated a nasty, racist intent. I suspect the same was true of Kate Smith in the 1930s.

Back when I was a librarian, I also saw plenty of sheet music published before 1920 or so with the term darkie (or darkey) in the title. See for example this. The Library of Congress still uses the subject headings “negro spirituals” (is there another kind?) and “negro songs” to refer to various subgenres of American folk song that includes slave songs, work songs, spirituals, minstrel music, protest songs, etc. Maybe we should cancel the Library of Congress. Some published music titles from back then even call them coon songs. That last one is totally unacceptable today, but it’s frankly part of our history, and like changing character names in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, sanitizing the past does not make it go away or any less discomfiting. But if you wanna bury your head in the sand, go ahead, ostrich.

Also, if some person or entity ever does some questionably racist, sexist, or malign thing (even something short of abominable) situated contextually in the past, does that mean he, she, or it must be cancelled irrevocably? If that be the case, then I guess we gotta cancel composer Richard Wagner, one of the most notorious anti-Semites of the 19th century. Also, stop watching Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars films (among others), because remember that time when Walt Disney Studios (now Walt Disney Company) made a racist musical film, Song of the South (1946)? Disney’s tainted legacy (extending well beyond that one movie) is at least as awful as, say, Kevin Spacey, and we’re certainly not about to rehabilitate him.

/rant off

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