My cousin-hosts served up an intense political discussion along with delicious herb-crusted lamb chops for Easter dinner. As with most American families, mine is made up of Democrats and Republicans, Trumpettes and never-Trumpers. Me, I’m a moderate-independent, although I caucus with the Dems, so to speak.
About the only thing we all agree on is that we’re lifelong Yankee fans. So what did I, they wondered, think of the New York Yankees banning Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” because she sang a song about “darkies” that Paul Robeson, the great African-American actor-singer, also sang?
By now I had developed an equally intense desire for a second helping of everything. “I’m paying a high price for this meal,” I whispered to a Democratic cousin. But I couldn’t resist plunging in, as evenly as possible. I don’t believe in political correctness. I think it’s death to art, to the imagination and to history as well as to journalism. I spent years watching editors twist and turn ledes of stories to make sure — as we reporters used to joke — that we had quotes from a left-handed black lesbian from the county across the river in the first few paragraphs so that we could check off all our demographic boxes.
I wouldn’t have minded, but I sensed the editors didn’t care about minorities at all. They were just using them to score points with the higher-ups as they climbed the corporate ladder. Indeed, I once had a shrewd black nun — talk about your demographic jackpot — who asked me point blank if I were interviewing her because she was black. I stressed that I was interested in what she had to say, and I was. But I knew that was a half-truth, which is the same as a half-lie.
As Gerda Lerner, an influential women’s history professor at Sarah Lawrence College in the 1970s, once said to us, political correctness doesn’t matter if you don’t give a damn about people. So you can call history herstory but if women don’t have socioeconomic equality with men, who cares? Lerner knew what she was talking about. She was vilified for also teaching black studies. What did she as a white Jew know about that?, people wondered. I don’t know, maybe she was interested in the subject and could offer a different perspective on it.
But back to Kate Smith: You can’t read history backward. We are the product of our times just as we in turn shape those times. As an Alexander the Great buff, I make no excuses for his killing thousands on the way to conquering the Persian Empire. I don’t romanticize him, but I don’t demonize him either. He was an autocratic king descended from many autocratic kings. Had he not conquered Persia — an act he saw in part as avenging Persian atrocities against the Greeks — there’s little doubt Persia would’ve one day made war once again on the Greeks.
History is complex. People are complex. The child of tough parents, Alexander helped me survive tough parents. He taught me to be generous and to lead from the front — the latter in short supply in our age of strongmen who, unlike Alexander, should know better and are unfortunately all parade and no battle.
Yet we live with the past, not in it and thus must be sensitive to our own times. The Yanks — one of the most conservative and corporate of teams, who began playing “God Bless America” at the seventh inning stretch in place of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” after 9/11 — aren’t just being sensitive to our times. They know that many of their fans and neighbors in the South Bronx are people of color. Their decision makes common and economic sense to them.
The Philadelphia Flyers have made a similar decision. But the town of Wildwood, New Jersey, where I spent many a happy summer at my beloved Aunt Mary and Uncle Sam’s second home, will still play Smith’s rendition on the boardwalk at 11 a.m. every day.
I see nothing wrong with this. Smith was a wonderful singer ridiculed in her day for her weight when limited fashions for Rubenesque women made her dowdy. (Today, she’d be dressed by Christian Soriano.) Yet we cannot countenance racist lyrics. As Hamlet says to his mother Gertrude of her cleft, adulterous heart: “Oh, throw away the worser part and live the purer with the other half.”
We can all do that. We can acknowledge Smith’s greatness and that she sang songs whose lyrics were inappropriate, hurtful, demeaning. The Metropolitan Opera did “Die Walküre” this past season, didn’t it? Yet its composer, RIchard Wagner, was an anti-Semite. We can acknowledge his enormity as a man of theater and his monstrous prejudice and hold these two ideas in our minds simultaneously. That’s the expanse of the imagination.
Next Saturday, May 4, the Kentucky Derby will once again play Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses and jockeys make their way to the starting gate, and I will once again shed a tear. Foster was a wonderful composer who led a sad life and never got over the romance of the antebellum South. The song’s lyric “‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay” has been changed to “‘Tis summer, the people are gay.” (And let’s note that today “gay” has an entirely different meaning.)
Words matter. But only if actions do.