Commentary by Terry Anker
He was among the first African-American men to host a national television program. His life was cut short among the many to die of lung cancer. He raised a daughter, who, like him, would come to know fame and the many privileges and obligations inure to the designation. Nathaniel Adams Coles lives in the heart and songs of many this season, more than ever. Nat “King” Cole, who likened to the children’s nursery rhyme evoked by his moniker, earned his place as a troubadour for millions. Surely, he suffered immeasurable humiliation as a black man subjugated to the standards of “separate” but equal. There is no place for this identity in passing through this world – or any other. Yet he, like many others, found his way.
In bringing voice to music provided by the famed Charles Spencer Chaplin for his 1936 film “Modern Times,” Nat was no doubt tipping his hat to the impoverished English lad-made-good, Charlie. While the lyrics and title came later from a duet of songwriters, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons to be exact, the sentiment originated from an earlier, more rudimentary and distinctly thoughtful place. Namely, that life is not as we wish it to be – so what do we do about it? Charlie, somewhat cavalier by today’s ethos, suggested — no, asserted — that that we should simply grin and bear it.
To use the much more elegant, even erudite, words of Turner & Parsons, “Smile, what’s the use of crying?” Surely, the admonishment to “hide every trace of sadness” violates some contemporary rule to stew in our supposed transgressions. Is smiling through our “fear and sadness” a talisman to endure a perilous, if not intentionally vindictive, world? Is a smile enough to inoculate against the aspersions and ill-will of the haters in our ranks? Let’s hope so.