First, the Flyers removed Kate Smith’s statue.
Then, someone took down a YouTube video of her performing “Pickaninny Heaven.”
I don’t have a problem with the first.
I do with the latter.
That video was disturbing but informative.
If it were still available, people could click on the link and better understand why Flyers management removed the statue last weekend and also banned Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America."
Before it disappeared, I took a good long look at the video. I actually watched it a couple of times. It shows Smith in a room full of black children; the youngest was in a crib and the others appeared to be around 4 or 5. On the video, she dedicates the song to “a lot of little colored chillen listening in, in an orphanage in New York City.” Then she sings:
"Haven’t you been told of the place where the good little pickaninnies go?
I’ve just been there so I ought to know
Great big watermelons roll around and get in your way
In the pickaninny heaven."
The poor, wide-eyed children just sat there listening. They were probably bewildered by her performance.
I was disturbed by it.
I couldn’t help but think of my late father, who was a youngster in the 1930s when that recording was made. Children are so impressionable. What if he’d been in that room, in that demeaning situation, absorbing that garbage?
Thank goodness he had hard-working parents who tried to shelter him and his siblings as best they could from racism. Despite not having much formal education, they managed to guide all four of their children through college and post-graduate degrees. And this was in the segregated South, where they weren’t even allowed to vote.
My dad, who went on to have a long career as a high school teacher and athletic director, would agree 100 percent with the Flyers’ move.
Opponents argue that the lyrics were reflective of the era during which they were recorded.
What they don’t understand is that referring to a black child as a pickaninny was never OK.
Even back then, there were plenty of people who objected to this kind of negativity. Civil rights activists were fighting back — maybe not making much progress, but agitating nonetheless.
Another problematic song of Smith’s was her rendition of “That’s Why the Darkies Were Born”:
Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born.
Critics rightly point out that the late African American performer and activist Paul Robeson sang it too. I don’t know what he was thinking when he did it. The song reportedly was from the 1931 Broadway revue George White’s Scandals and was considered a satirical view of racism. I guess I would have had to see the show to appreciate the irony. From where I sit, it’s completely lost on me.
I get that people love Smith. The Flyers playing her rendition of “God Bless America” was a tradition.
Critics are absolutely right when they point to certain rap songs with even more offensive lyrics that get played at sporting events. I touched on that in 2017 when I wrote about how the Eagles needed to rethink using Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” as its unofficial anthem during the Super Bowl. Fans shouldn’t be subjected to music with bleeped-out offensive lyrics at sporting events.
A colleague I shared the “Pickaninny Heaven” video with had a great suggestion for the Flyers: Why not invite a class of first graders out to sing “God Bless America?”
It would be cute. Maybe put Flyers T-shirts on them.