To the Editor:
The United States has a long history of racism. It began in 1619 when the first slaves were brought to the Virginia colony. Popular songs, as well as the larger culture, have reflected that history. Without both an understanding of the historical context and the need to keep things in perspective, decisions by private companies to ban performers, songs, and songwriters become exercises in the absurd.
The New York Yankees are a case in point. After receiving a complaint that Kate Smith had sung a few songs, 80 or more years ago, with racist lyrics, the team abruptly decided to no longer play Smith’s iconic recording of “God Bless America.”
This knee-jerk reaction ignores pertinent facts. In the early decades of the 20th century, many songwriters on Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, including Irving Berlin, who wrote “God Bless America,” used racial and ethnic stereotypes in their lyrics. These songs were performed by the popular singers of that period.
If Smith had not asked Berlin to write a patriotic song for her popular radio program, there never would have been “God Bless America.” The song debuted on Nov. 10, 1938, the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War I. As described by John Shaw in his book, “This Land That I Love,” before Smith sang the song, she denounced the Nazi persecution of Jews.
During World War II Smith, who recorded nearly 3,000 songs, helped to raise $600 million in war bonds. In a 1945 radio address, she said, “race hatred, social prejudice and religious bigotry, they are the diseases that eat away the fiber of peace.”
Irving Berlin was a trailblazer in the racial integration of Broadway musicals. In his 1933 revue, “As Thousands Cheer,” the African-American singer and actress Ethel Waters received top billing and sang the anti-lynching song “Supper Time.” Berlin’s 1942 show, “This is the Army,” which toured military bases around the world and raised millions of dollars for the war effort, had an integrated cast and military audiences were also integrated. Yet Berlin in this show used the word “darky,” later removed, in a song celebrating the emancipation of slaves, with the singer in blackface.
That same year in “Holiday Inn,” which introduced “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby in blackface sang the song “Abraham” honoring Lincoln’s birthday.
If the Yankees used the same logic employed to ban Kate Smith, Irving Berlin and his anthem “God Bless America” would also no longer be played in Yankee Stadium.
Maybe Yankee fans should boycott the team itself. It took the Yankees eight years after Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey broke the color line in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and six years after Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson integrated the New York Giants, for the Yankees to promote in 1955 Elston Howard, the team’s first black ballplayer. Fans might also demand that the Yankees remove from Monument Park Casey Stengel’s retired number 37, because he made racist remarks.
Here are three suggestions for the Yankees to consider.
First, reverse their decision and once again play the Kate Smith recording of “God Bless America.” Second, alternate that song with a second anthem of America, “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. This song, written in a West 43rd St. hotel in 1940, was a response to “God Bless America,” which Guthrie thought was too uncritical of the country both he and Berlin loved. This song was memorably played at President Obama’s January 2009 inaugural in Washington, D.C.
Third, the Yankees should stop using the words “Enduring Freedom” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” when the team honors our soldiers who fought in the global war on terror after 9/11 and in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. These are propaganda terms first used by the Bush administration to hide the dark side of our wars since 2001.
This includes illegal invasions, violations of international law, torture, large numbers of civilian deaths, needless American casualties, enormous costs reaching trillions of dollars, and attacks on civil liberties at home in the name of national security.
As George Orwell wrote in “Politics in the English Language,” “political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
It’s time for the Yankee organization, its fans, and all New Yorkers to engage in critical thinking about the meanings of patriotism, war, race, popular songs, the inherent political nature of sports, and baseball in the Bronx.
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