It was the 1930’s. While a rotund and darn proud of it Kate Smith was belting out “God Bless America” causing a lump to form in our throats, and our antiseptic kitchens were tastefully adorned with ceramic mammy and pappy salt and pepper shakers, American’s chuckled nightly to the number one radio show on the air, “Amos and Andy” voiced by 2 white men.
Ain’t dat sumpthin.
Seen through today’s lens, 1930’s America would appear to be a dark decade when it came to racial attitudes.
Its not suprising then that Kate Smith that patriotic Songbird of the South has suddenly come under scrutiny due to the unearthing of several songs she recorded with Columbia records that contain overt racist lyrics.
Along with “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” is another cringe-worthy number called “Pickanniny Heaven” that was performed in a 1933 movie “Hello Everybody.” Smith dedicated the song to “a lot of a little colored chillen’ listening in, in an orphanage in New York City,” then singing about “the place where the good little Pickanninies go” where “great big watermelons roll around, getting in your way.”
Whether crooning about darkies, picking cotton or pickanninies, the words are offensive to contemporary ears.
Mammy- How I Loves ya- My Dear Old Mammy
Not helping her newly tarnished reputation would be an advertisement from 1939 that she appeared in which was quite frankly typical of its day. When she wasn’t belting out “God Bless America” Kate Smith lent her good name endorsing many products including one for Calumet Baking Powder, which she promoted on her radio show.
Advertising has a long histsory of perpetuating sterotypes of blacks. The Mammy was the hands down favored stereotype for women in print advertising.
These bandanna bedecked black women were loyal to a fault; the sometimes sassy servant with a heart of gold made sure m’ white lady’s spotless home ran smoothly and made sho’ dem’ chilen’ of the misses were well fed and well clothed.
This ad, not short on sexism too, tells the heartwarming story of Babs a young bride who longs to be as good a baker as her dear ol’ Mammy. Frustrated by one cake failure after another, she sends away for a recipe book she heard advertised on Kate Smith’s radio program. Finally thanks to Kate Smith, Calumet and their recipe book, her husband- pleasing cakes now rival Mammys.
To show her deep appreciation, Bab sews a Mammy doll to send to Kate Smith. If that sentimental tale doesn’t bring a tear to your eye , I don’t know what will:
“I always wanted to be as good at baking as my old mammy – and now I am! All on account of your recipe book and that wonderful economical and sure-fire Calumet. So wont you keep this Mammy doll in your dressing room to remind you of your grateful listener.”
Does all this prove Kate Smith is a racist? I tend to think not. This was Kate Smith’s America. She was a product of her time and as offensive as we view these images and words they must be seen in the context of the times they appeard.
Ironically, even the iconic song “God Bless America” itself came under attack when it was first sung by Kate Smith in 1938. In America there was always enough hate to go around.
Songwriter Irving Berlin who wrote “God Bless America” was a Jewish immigrant (born Israel Baline, the son of a Jewish cantor who fled persecution in Europe). Though the song was a hit when Smith performed it on her radio show , there were some who questioned a yiddishe boychik like Berlin the right to evoke God and to call the United States his “home sweet home.”
In 1940, the song was boycotted by the KKK and the Nazi-affiliated German American Bund.n fact , a newspaper of a domestic pro-Nazi organization voiced their opposition to the songwriting , “[I do] not consider G-B-A a ‘patriotic’ song, in the sense of expressing the real American attitude toward his country, but consider that it smacks of the ‘How glad I am’ attitude of the refugee horde.”
God Bless America.
She may well have been a product of her time, with the relative disadvantages of being female and hefty and not a kewpie doll of a woman, so she may have just sort of grabbed whatever rung on the status ladder she could, glad to be ‘above’ blacks, since she was ‘below’ men and ‘below’ women with other kinds of appearance…or she really needed money to support herself like we all do and sold out…not to justify, but to speculate on reasons–
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I would not characterize it as selling out as this was standard fare for the times. Remnants of minstrel shows still remained as forms of entertainment. During the war, she actually spoke out quite strongly for tolerance.
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It’s really hard to know someone’s reasons without being in their position in the times–
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Need I point out, Fans of Sally, none of the mainstream news media hits on the Kate Smith controversy (I saw, anyway) came close to providing the historic context? Not to mention digging up the informative illustrations. How lucky we are to have Sally.
Thank you so much for your generous words. The historic context is terribly important. I’ve glanced at some of my mothers old elocution notebooks from the late 1930’s and there are several dialects that use the term “Darkies” in mimicking a southern person. There was no ill intent meant at the time though seen today we are horrified by that.
Thanks for providing a balanced story, unlike most news media does nowadays. It makes your stories enjoyable as well as believable.
Thank you Chris, Im glad you see them that way.