By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — There are some true American heroes that, for one reason or another, don’t quite receive their just place in in the history books.
A few who come to mind are Thomas Paine, Susan B. Anthony and Woody Guthrie.
Another is Paul Robeson, a true Renaissance man if there ever was one.
As a black man born in 1898, he seemed to either break down barriers – or get around them – with an uncommon ease and grace for his time when mutual respect between races, and ethnic groups, barely existed.
One of the first blacks to attend Rutgers, he endured physical punishment from prospective teammates to earn a place on the football team.
Robeson was also on the debating team, honing skills that would serve him well with a lifetime of political activism that later got him blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
Although he earned a law degree from Columbia, Robeson became a successful stage actor and singer, leaving behind a long discography while engaging in social activism.
Why do I bring up Robeson, other than because he should not be forgotten by time?
Because one of his recordings was a song titled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.”
The lyrics of this song, written by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, are beyond offensive and blatantly racist.
But Robeson still recorded the song, which would seem to be an off choice for someone of such steadfast conviction about who and what he was.
However, research reveals the song was meant as a satirical jab at racists (one of the writers, Brown, was Jewish and likely keenly aware of prejudice).
In that context, it is a poke right through the eyes of their white hoods of the many out-in-the-open Klan members of the time period.
The Marx Bros. also referenced the song in the movie “Duck Soup.”
And Kate Smith recorded it as well in 1931 (the same year as Robeson).
Although it was recorded as recently as 1970 by satirical song master Randy Newman, who once wrote and sang how “short people have no reason to live” to make a point, it seems that only Smith will be punished.
Since Smith has been dead for 33 years, there is no way to know if she was performing the song for reasons other than that of Robeson or Newman.
But unlike them, she has been posthumously singled out and put on trial like a Salem witch – without a chance to defend herself or her motives – as both the hometown Flyers and New York Yankees, a team so reluctant to sign black players that they reportedly passed on Willie Mays, have taken steps to make sure the singer of “God Bless America” is vanquished from history.
Truth be told, the Flyers winning the Stanley Cup in 1974 – and again in 1975 – was a highlight of my wayward youth. The whole Kate Smith thing – the playing of “God Bless America” and her showing up in person before Game 6 of the finals in 1974 to belt out the song – was a bit silly to me (and I was the ripe old age of nine).
The fact that the Flyers erected a statue of her was embarrassing, but taking it down – now – is beyond mortifying.
Left in the place of where the statue once stood, we have yet another downright blatant case of political correctness run amok.
In the final analysis, this is more about what is or isn’t fair when dealing with what I regard as the most valued possession any person has, that being their legacy.
Yes, Smith also sang “Pickaninny Heaven,” another song – one she dedicated to children in a black orphanage to “cheer them up” — with offensive lyrics (watermelons and such) that was yanked off YouTube (and yet we can still watch the alleged cinematic masterpiece, “Birth of a Nation,” whenever we want).
These ignominious events caused me to research Smith a bit more, and I found nothing – as in zero – that the woman held any racist views.
After World War II, in terms of social and political stances, she was a non-entity.
At worst, she was a product of her time. More than likely, as time passed, she was embarrassed by the poor song choices made for her to sing.
And, in her prime years, keeping pace with the hit parade was a grind. You had to keep cranking out song after song, or someone else would take the same song and have a hit with it instead.
Considering artists don’t have much say or control today, they certainly didn’t back then.
Smith’s parents scoffed at her career aspirations and wanted her to become a nurse, but she chose a career as a singer. It was make it or break it. If someone said “sing this, it will be a hit,” she sang it.
That’s not an excuse, and maybe she could have risen above it all, but there are more egregious acts that are overlooked.
Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford, for example, were vehement anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers who opposed our entry in World War II.
No statues of Lindbergh are being torn down, and plenty of people – myself included – drive Fords.
Walt Disney was purported to be a bigot, and yet people – of all creeds – pour into his resorts.
Andrew Jackson was responsible for heinous policies against Native Americans, and yet he remains on the $20 bill.
Many of the founding fathers – including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – owned slaves.
Their legacies remain untarnished.
But not that of Kate Smith.
Sounds like fodder for a song – one that a man with the character of Paul Robeson would have been proud to sing.
This column originally ran in The Times Herald on April 28, 2019.