Were the Flyers Right to Cancel Kate Smith?

Image via Twitter (@_MikeDeNardo)

There are few things in life that remind me more of Catholic school culture than the beginning of sporting events. The invitation to rise and remove one’s cap is the call to prayer, and the national anthem reinforces the notion that there is a larger, benevolent force at work.

For nearly 50 years, Kate Smith has served as the high priestess of the Flyers’ pregame patriotic pageantry. Her psalm of choice was not “The Star Spangled Banner,” but rather the Irving Berlin classic, “God Bless America”. Smith became something of a good luck charm for the Flyers, so much so that the organization continued to play a recording of her performances three decades after her death.

If you have ever attended a Flyers game of any consequence, you will have been treated to Lauren Hart singing “God Bless America,” with footage from Smith’s rendition of the song during a 1974 playoff series against the Boston Bruins spliced into the performance, making for an interesting, if awkward, duet:

On Easter Sunday, the Flyers formally announced that they had ended their association with Smith. Her crime had been exposed earlier in the week by Stefan Bondy, a reporter for the New York Daily News, who was investigating why the Yankees had abruptly dropped Smith’s “God Bless America”, a 7th-inning stretch staple for the organization. Bondy wrote:

“Smith was a famous singer before and during WWII who recorded the offensive jingle, ‘Pickaninny Heaven,’ which she directed at ‘colored children’ who should fantasize about an amazing place with ‘great big watermelons,’ among other treats. She shot a video for that song that takes place in an orphanage for black children, and much of the imagery is startlingly racist. She also recorded, ‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born,’ which included the lyrics, ‘Someone had to pick the cotton. … That’s why darkies were born.’

Smith, who died in 1986, endorsed the ‘Mammy Doll’ in 1939, which was based on a racist caricature of a black woman in the same vein as Aunt Jemima.

In an interview with Steve Trevelise on New Jersey 101.5, Bondy shared that a fan had tipped off the Yankees to Smith’s controversial music. The report appeared in the Daily News on April 18. The next day, the Flyers had moved to cover a statue of Smith that once stood outside the Spectrum before taking up residence along a path that leads from Xfinity Live! to the Wells Fargo Center. The organization removed the statue on Sunday.

Flyers fans, and anyone who has been paying moderate attention to the sports news cycle in this city in the past week, are likely very familiar with this story and have settled in a camp. Maybe you agree with 97.5 The Fanatic’s Natalie Egenolf:

Or maybe your thinking is more along the lines of Tony Bruno’s outraged response:

No matter where you stand, it’s worth considering the facts behind the controversy and why the Flyers arrived at their swift decision to dump Smith.

We live in a “ready, fire, aim” culture that reinforces our natural tendency to slip into indignation and righteousness. We’re told to pick a side. Conservative or Liberal? Stephen A. Smith or Max Kellerman? Antonio Brown or Ben Roethlisberger? Nick Foles or Carson Wentz? The notions that a topic might be complicated, extend beyond the simplistic framing of a binary choice, and worth some thought before forming a position are luxuries none of us can afford in a social media world that values the instantaneous over the deliberative.

And that’s a shame, because this Kate Smith controversy presents an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about the ways in which we reckon with our past- if we’re brave enough to engage it honestly.

Most importantly, the reporting of this story has been lackluster, and that’s putting it generously. Take the initial New York Daily News article, for example. Bondy spends his entire feature painting Smith as a racist, complete with a random selection of two lines from “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” before informing his readers that the song “was considered satire at the time and recorded with African-American artist Paul Robeson.” No matter, though. The author helpfully informs his audience that the lyrics are nonetheless “neither humorous nor ironic in 2019.”

Notwithstanding the dishonest framing and gratuitous editorializing, Bondy leaves his readers dangling at the end of the passive voice hook. Considered by whom to be satire? Other posts and articles I have read have adopted this evasive phrasing without providing further context.

“That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was first performed in 1931 in a Broadway variety show called George White’s Scandals. Having listened to the song a few times, I can appreciate the ways in which the music and the lyrics undermine some of the racial stereotypes Smith has been accused of perpetuating. The tune begins with a somber beat that describes the unfair burden that has been placed on black folks, before the resignation: “Accept your destiny.”

The music then transitions into a more uplifting beat, during which the offensive lyrics are repeated. The penultimate verse transitions back to a doleful sound, and includes the following lines:

Sing, sing,
Sing when you’re weary and sing when you’re blue.
Sing, sing,
That’s what you taught all the white folks to do.

If you can get past the antiquated reference to black folks that has evolved into a racially insensitive term in the intervening 89 years, you can see the ways in which the song is very much in the tradition of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” or the sentiments expressed in Ralph Ellison’s prologue of Invisible Man. In short, the song highlights the ways in which black Americans were forced to disguise their true feelings behind a happy facade in order to survive in a world that was built by them, but not for them. In this context, the future civil rights activist Robeson’s decision to record the song himself makes more sense.

“Pickaninny Heaven” proves to be much harder to defend. The song was featured in a movie that Smith made in 1933. Judging by the performance, the tune was intended to be hopeful and positive, but it’s aged very poorly. By today’s standards, it certainly meets the threshold for racial insensitivity.

But there’s the catch: is it fair to judge people who lived in a different era by standards that have evolved since they have departed from the earth? This is the argument ESPN analyst Will Cain advanced on First Take, which his colleague Mina Kimes rebutted:

Inclined as I am to agree with Kimes about the dangers of the slippery slope, I don’t think she fully appreciates the tenuous terrain on which her case-by-case argument rests. Kate Smith’s turn on the hot seat, for example, has been completely arbitrary and the verdict rendered quickly. The offensive songs that have diminished her reputation in the past week have been readily available on Youtube for years (“Pickaninny Heaven” has since been removed), though no one from the Flyers franchise seemed interested in correcting the wrong of associating the organization with her. But then, after one article and in the space of three days, she has essentially been erased from Flyers history, an obstacle to be removed in the name of preserving the team’s commitment to the Hockey is for Everyone (With Money) Campaign.

It was an easy decision, but not a particularly courageous one. In the grand scheme, Smith was a minor figure in Flyers history. She can be jettisoned in the name of tolerance without the franchise, the NHL, or the fans clamoring for her head having to wrestle with the culture from which Smith came.

Maybe we can celebrate our victory against racism over breakfast. The Mammie stereotype has been defeated- now where is that Aunt Jemima pancake mix?

Too often, the case-by-case approach claims smaller victories while avoiding larger fights against more worthy targets. Our collective policing of “acceptability” is subjective, ever-changing, and frequently dependent on the size of the target in question.

Ultimately, I don’t particularly care about the permanent suspension of the Kate Smith “God Bless America” ritual. If it were up to me, I would do away with all of these pregame displays of performative patriotism that imbue ultimately meaningless sporting events with a solemnity they have not earned and do not deserve. Moreover, further investigation into Smith’s life might reveal that her removal was warranted.

What’s more interesting to me is the way we view people who live in the past. Maybe the lesson from this little drama is that we should stop immortalizing humans with bronze statues. We are all a product of the times in which we live, for better and for worse. It’s a fact we might all do well to remember as we anticipate the judgmental gaze of those who come after us.


60 Responses

  1. Yes. It’s appalling and disgusting that the Flyers had a statue of this racist outside of their stadium. Anyone who follows this team should be ashamed of themselves because they are enablers.

    Philadelphia is the worst sports city in America.

    1. “Cowboy Dave” is someone we all should listen to. Would like to learn more from this anti-Phila tool when it comes to sports. Also, I miss Kate Devlin, and blessings to Mayor Troiano.

  2. Stupid tradition. It became a playoff curse. The only people up in arms about this are the jorts wearing d-bag chain smokers that still subscribe to the broad street bullies fan club.

    1. If anything this was a convenient excuse to give Kate Smith the boot. Lauren sounds way better these days anyway. Back when Kate actually showed up to flyers games and sang the song *without a mic* yeah it got the crowd pumped up. Now it’s like playing a scene from Gone with the Wind in 2019 and expecting to resonate with anyone. Next we need to find out Sly Stallone murdered kittens or something so we can stop playing the scene from Rocky II anytime we’re down with 3 minutes to go. Actually the Rocky II scene would be a bigger loss than a grainy tape of Kate Smith

      1. Sly has been credibly accused of rape multiple times, so I guess they aren’t really trying to get rid of him. You’re right about Kate Smith though.

    2. Re: MAC. I resent that comment. Our membership will climb again with our new coach. Also, you forgot about our badass flyers logo calf tattoos.

  3. Hey! Let’s remove William Penn’s statue too from the top of that old and outdated building and let’s change the name of the State too while we’re at it…

    I mean the guy did own 12 slaves right?! No matter that it was 200+ years ago. Let’s keep applying 2019 Morals to stuff centuries old!!

    It is yet another embarrassment from the Now-Failing-Around-The-World PC agenda that Mikey Miss wants to ride into retirement.

  4. How dare the Flyers get rid of their good luck charm!! That song brought so much luck that the team just completed it’s 43rd season since they last won a title. How will they ever recover?

  5. For me one issue is Smith never repudiated or dropped from her song book the truly offensive song, even though she lived through the Civil Rights era until the mid 1980’s. Of more concern for me was her association with Anita Bryant, one of the greatest one person hate groups in American history. I do think, being progressive, that we are too hard on people f or their past, but given Smith’s lack of understanding o obtuseness s or whatever about this early work, it seems hard for the Flyers to keep honoring her.

    However a far more racist song has this verse, which shows the enormous hypocrisy of this society.
    “No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
    o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

    Of course it;s the Star Spangled Banner who all those Patriots” reamed out Kaepernick for not standing for.

    Key was saying bluntly what would happen to those uppity black slaves who decided to fight for thy British instead of those good old american slave owners.

    Now there’s song that should be banned.

  6. the last few times the Flyers were in the playoffs, the duet was played way too much. Almost before every game! It was intended for big games like elimination games and game sevens. Originally it would be played during the regular season before a big rivalry game or if the game was needed to get into the playoffs. I wouldn’t have minded at all if they just decided not to use it anymore, but vilifying Kate Smith just doesn’t seem right.

  7. There is no room for this in today’s world and even though this was done 80+ years ago doesn’t mean you should just let bygones be bygones. By not doing anything about it you are saying eh, it’s okay let’s just pretend it never happened. The Flyers haven’t said God Bless America will not be sung/played before/during a game. It just won’t be this version.

  8. Deal with blowhards like Bruno and internet racists that will forget about all of this as soon as the Flyers or good again – Or,
    Be called racists and turn a blind eye to political correctness in an era where that gets you way more bad press.

    They did the easy thing and the best thing for the business. Non-story for everyone except the few childish internet racists and blowhards like Bruno that like to fake outrage.

    If all these outraged internet racists were so angry and all about standing up to SJWs, they would post with their real names here……….But, they are making a business decision just like the Flyers did and won’t dare do that.

    Get over yourselves.

    1. Or post using a “real name” like “Business Decision”, right? Must’ve been a business decision.

      1. You seem confused.

        I am not faking outrage and an internet racist. I understand the business decision. Try to keep up.

        I am doing exactly what the Flyers did. If the internet racists are so upset about it, they should do differently………but they won’t.

        So why are they whining?

        I typed slow for you that time.

        1. No, my friend. I was commenting on you saying the “outraged internet racists” are not using their real names in the comments section, yet you’re doing the exact same thing by naming yourself “Business Decision”. I doubt this is your real name. Unless it is? No need to type slowly.

          1. You almost have it. Typing really slow……

            If the Flyers are cowards for making a business decision – the cowardly internet racists should not be upset. They are doing the same thing.

            I admit I am making a business decision and not upset at the Flyers for doing the same. Get it yet?

          1. Amazing this Business person is whining about people not using their real names in comments, yet is still hiding behind a nom de plume? Strange. You’d think someone who wants to get us all woke would step out in front and take a leadership position. Guess we’re all still trying to keep up. Kate Devlin, where are you?

  9. A weak move made by a weak team caving to the demands of weak people.

        1. not all non-racists dig ditches. in fact, it’s typically the other way around. you’re a corporate slave. I retired at 35. need a job?

  10. Bruno got into some hot water out in L.A. for some thinly veiled racist remarks a few years back, so he’s the last guy I’d look to for insight on this matter. It has absolutely nothing to do with being “anti-American” and everything to do with who and what the Yankees and Flyers want their brands associated with. They have every right to make that decision. Tony and others with his view can boycott (which will accomplish nothing) and sit at home listening to their Kate Smith records.

  11. People just agree with Nat because she’s hot. I do it every day from 2-6, now on TV!

  12. Sixers lose to Toronto in 6. Brett no talent bastard Brown. Will be gone thank god.

  13. I wonder how many less crimes will be committed this weekend in the wonderful city of brotherly love now that the racist statue has been taken down….

    1. I wonder how many Heritage American CB commenters will wander into other topics and pollute them with their racist drivel?

          1. This isn’t a question?

            “I wonder how many less crimes will be committed this weekend in the wonderful city of brotherly love now that the racist statue has been taken down….”

            And before you say “there wasn’t a question mark at the end so it can’t be a question”, why don’t you just go ahead and answer it. That or keep your head buried in the sand

          2. Correct. “I wonder” does not create a question. Lol.

            Head in sand? My fault. I didn’t realize they took the statue down to stop crime.

            You friggin whining snowflakes are funny.


  14. That stupid b—- englehoff is all upset by it. Yet, she works for a “man” who got suspended a few years ago for sending emails to a listener containing h0m0phobic slurs. I’m sure that C U N T Natalie found those emails to be totally repulsive and she thinks that little mikey should be removed from the station and erased from the history of Philadelphia radio (oh if only we were so lucky). Or how about when her station stood by while it’s employees were doing the “Dwayne from swedesboro” calls. By her rational the whole station should just be removed and forgotten (yes, please). Give me a break Natalie you stupid wh8re

  15. Guess while we’re at it we might as well band Mel Brooks Blazing Saddles, the Rolling Stones Brown Sugar, and airing The Three Stooges at any point.

    Glad to see the Flyers kept up their pattern of folding like a house of cards in in a hurricane.

    Pretty safe bet that no one looked up the historical context of any of this.

    Remember SJWs work on an ever sliding scale of privilege. One day you’re granted privilege the next day you’re in their dog house. Don’t believe me.? Voice your opinions on transgender men competing in women sports. Biological dudes should not be allowed to compete with women. When real women are the victims. Yet sjws don’t care about that because those freaks have more privilege then real women. And hence because transgender men have more privileged than real women real women lose. Along with all the people that support women not competing against biological men. See how this crap works?

    Have fun you bunch of pansies. Once you cave to the mob there’s no coming back

    1. Blazing Saddles is over 40 years old.

      And dumb white guys like you still haven’t figure out what the big joke in the movie is. That makes it even funnier.

    2. Winner, the faux outrage band of underachievers with another “win”. Time for one more craft beer and a beard waxing.

  16. I fully support Crossing Broad’s support of Meek Mill and his racist and demeaning lyrics.
    Thanks for supports racists and people that demean women Kyle.

    Here’s a sample.

    “F**k Bi**hes Get Money”

    [Meek Mill:]
    I said I’m cooler than a fan fresh like it’s easter
    Pull up a bitch she be like osta la vister
    Heser thought dats what they all say skeezers
    I just fucked her yesterday homie you can keep her
    Believe her
    I don’t do nothin I’m a ball
    I’m a stand up n**ga
    I jump up everytime I fall
    Everytime I lost
    I came back like cook crack
    Got my hand up in the game and I ain’t never look back
    I said I’m good
    I’m hood
    I wish a n**ga would
    Try to take me for a sucker he get hit up just because
    Can’t shake em off for nothin
    Dey be hatin but for what
    Cause I ain’t even get a deal but
    When I do they be like UHH!
    Sick ya bitch all up on my d**k
    Cause you a bug
    You a flee and I’m a G
    I ain’t no Crip I ain’t no Blood
    But I don’t bend no I don’t budge
    I keep dat semi by my gut
    A n**ga tempt me fire up
    I let that sig blow light em up
    I say I ain’t got that hazy
    You know I got dat cush
    Niggas rolling on that dirt be smokin dat Reggie Bush
    Said dey always speak my name
    But when dey see me they never look
    Cause they know I keep that flame
    But hold up that’s anotha book
    I said them shooters on deck
    Goonies over there
    And dat ain’t even countin for tooly dat wear
    I said dey bi**hes, pu**y, co**hie over there
    So many clips it look like we shootin for a movie over here

  17. My comment keeps getting banned. Not sure what’s so offensive in saying sjws take more pride in digging up controversy on dead people then dealing with present day hatred. Why havent they ever protested Jay z’s made in America festival? Why is his hate towards females not only allowed but embraced?

  18. mlk, h clinton, and barak barry soerto hussein (?!) all hated the h@m*s!x@als, why R they not the target of the sjw’s???

  19. I just want to thank Mikey Miss for educating everyone yesterday on this subject. Hey Mikey, weren’t you in Augusta for the Masters. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Augusta National ban blacks for years. If your going to be a”man of the people”, you have to go all the way. Or are you just another elitist liberal who says, “Do what I say, not as I do”

  20. Kate Smith sang an obvious satirical song with a civil rights hero, and she should be banned and memory holed. The Yankees, along with MLB, literally banned people of color from their organization, and Kate Smith is the bad one here?

  21. statues represent a certain time in American history.. are we going to pretend the history didn’t happen or change it to something we can accept we can talk about those statues we can learn about those statues but don’t hide them cuz if we do what’s next our money the flags books we don’t like where does it stop. our country’s slowly falling apart there’s a big divide we need to come together as a nation instead of being a Nation of the offended

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