Kate Smith evolved from patriotic symbol to pariah seemingly overnight after egregiously racist songs she originally performed in the 1930s made fresh headlines. The Flyers organization took about 48 hours to condemn, cover up, and cart away the statue it erected in 1987 to honor Smith, historically the team’s good luck charm, from its pedestal outside XFinity Live! in South Philadelphia.
The controversy about a patriotic popular singer who died in 1986 adds fresh fire to the painful but necessary national conversation about confronting racism’s stubbornly enduring legacy. Those who say it’s unfair to judge a historical figure — especially someone who was otherwise admirable — by what we hope are more enlightened contemporary standards are protesting the move as political correctness run amok.
Much also has been made of the fact that no less a social justice warrior than Paul Robeson performed one of these same songs. But the notion that the songs themselves, or Smith’s renditions, were intended as satire is wishful thinking. And those rushing to defend Smith ought to give a listen to these examples of the pervasive racism that was standard in popular entertainment during the first half of the 20th century, and beyond. No wonder the wounds are so deep, and lasting.
Meanwhile, the speed with which the Smith statue was banished echoes how rapidly Starbucks reacted last year after controversy erupted over how an employee reacted to the presence of two black men inside one of the coffee chain’s Center City locations. (Though to some observers, the response wasn’t as thorough as it was fast.) The Flyers’ rapid response also is a dramatic contrast to the glacial pace involved in Mayor Jim Kenney’s intention, announced in 2017, to move the far more divisive sculptural likeness of former mayor Frank Rizzo from its commanding perch across from City Hall sometime after this November’s mayoral election — two years later. Before removing the Smith statue, the Flyers first shrouded it in dark cloth, creating, perhaps unintentionally, a powerful image. Imagine the outrage if the Rizzo statue received the same treatment.
Sadly, the statue of the singer was among a minuscule number of public-art pieces memorializing female historical figures among the city’s 1,500 such works. Perhaps the speed with which one of the three or four widely known Philadelphia statues of women was hauled away will serve to remind people of this rather appalling disparity.
Let’s also remember that Smith, born in 1907, was a single woman who carved out a stunningly successful career in the infant medium of radio. She became famous as a teenager, at a time when female performers of all sorts were expected to be glamorous and svelte. Sound familiar? This talented vocalist, whose marathon radio campaigns to sell war bonds raised $600 million during World War II, was fat-shamed over the course of her professional career.
It’s a shame that Smith didn’t live to see fat-shaming banished from polite public discourse. It’s also a shame that she performed some profoundly racist material of the sort whose damaging force continues to resonate in American life. Let’s hope removing the statue makes it easier to close the wounds.