by Ellen Deacon
I want to thank both the Local and the author of the “commentary” about Kate Smith’s statue in last week’s paper for contributing to an essential ongoing conversation about issues of our times [“Removal of Kate Smith statue unjust,” April 25]. The argument made by that author, however, is misguided.
As a deep heritage white U.S. Southerner with at least three Southern-dwelling generations in the ancestry of each grandparent, I have documented history as a descendant of people who held human beings in bondage for economic gain. For decades now, I have been “doing my work” toward healing my own spirit in the face of this history, which is not just the history of the U.S. South, but of all of us in this country.
Human beings were ripped from their homeland and forced to come to this continent, to work for no wages in hereditary chattel enslavement. They were denied control over their very existence, their families destroyed repeatedly and their bodies considered property. All purely for economic gain, and for no other real reason, whatever justifications might have been touted then or now.
We all know of this history. Right to this day, we struggle with the effects of its horrors on our psyches, while we still benefit from its essential contribution to our economy. Until we own up, with compassion and courage, to the ways it has both supported and distorted our existence with each other, we will continue to be unable to address the key issues of our time, especially how to prevent the destruction of our habitation on this beloved planet.
Quoting Paul Robeson’s singing of “That’s Why D—— Were Born,” to justify Dr. Hanak’s apology for Kate Smith’s rendition of the same song is inappropriate. Robeson’s reasons for what he did as he pursued his life and career were his own, and not for others to characterize or appropriate. He had the right, as an African heritage descendant of those people my ancestors enslaved, to sing even this song if he chose. But Kate Smith did not.
I remember Smith. I loved her huge voice and big spirit, and the energy and affection with which she trumpeted the messages of her time. But some of those messages, we now need to acknowledge, often expressed attitudes that, even if well-meaning, embodied misguided, destructive stereotypes.
Anytime someone seeks to excuse or justify our “peculiar institution” of chattel bondage through extolling the virtues of surviving it, misses the point. It was wrong. Its “affectionate” language is full of stereotypes. The attempt to justify such bondage by admiring the spirit of those who faced that life is still racism. The inestimable courage and perseverance evidenced by African people forced to endure this bondage is indeed among the best of what we humans are capable of accomplishing. A song that celebrates that without also denouncing what made it necessary is not a song to be celebrated today.
Smith’s statue, not her wonderful voice and her big heart, is the necessary target of the acknowledgement and cleansing process with which our whole society needs to keep engaging. The leadership of groups like Black Lives Matter offers us a way to encounter and work through this history, without “whitewashing” it any longer.
This song still says “well, sure, it was not great for those people, but look how strong it made them.” Chattel bondage should never have happened, but it did. And now we need to stop justifying it, remove symbols found offensive by those most directly affected, regardless of sentimentality, and keep the healing work going.
Ellen Deacon is a Chestnut Hill resident.