When I was in grade school my classmates and I sang “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River“; that’s how I knew it.) Swanee River is a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851. Since 1935 it has been the official state song of Florida, although in 2008 the original lyrics were revised.
Here is the chorus from this 1851 song:
“All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home!”
Stephen Foster, is known as “The Father of American Music” because of the many lyrical and extremely popular songs he wrote, including “Camptown Races“, “My Old Kentucky Home“, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair“, and “Beautiful Dreamer“. Foster used the Negro dialect of the day for the lyrics.
Should a song like this be sung today? No. Should we rip songs like this and the people who wrote and performed them from our history books, to be replaced by accusations of hate and racism? How about people like Robert E. Lee and Kate Smith? No. Not at all. Should we know and learn from our history–all of it? Yes. Of course. And that’s the topic of today’s 10-minute podcast.
Let’s start the discussion by saying that we cannot learn from history if we do not understand it. Insert your favorite quote about learning from history here. That part is clear on its face, yes? And if we distort and twist that history before erasing it, things get even worse.
Here is today’s Key Point. And, yes, we are getting to it early. We need to know, to really get it, that people like Stephen Foster, Robert E. Lee and Kate Smith are not hard-core Nazis, KKK riders or even sad little David Duke. They are ordinary people, like you and me. The lesson we need to learn is how to be sufficiently educated, aware and caring to keep evolving as individuals and as a society. We need to be continually evolving and constantly improving. Tearing down statues and reputations while rewriting history books in an effort to make yesterday look like we think it should have been make that learning and evolving impossible. All of us, including the “tear it down” advocates, need to remember that the learning and evolving needs to continue forever. What we do today will be judged through the lens of history tomorrow. And don’t we want future generations to be learning and improving rather than accusing and tearing down the history we create?
I hold Robert E. Lee accountable for most of the death and destruction in the Civil War, a war that killed more Americans than all of our other wars put together. General Lee was asked by Abraham Lincoln to head the Union Army, but Lee refused, and proved the wisdom of Lincoln’s request by brilliantly leading the Confederates to victory after victory over the superior but poorly led Union forces. Lee’s mistake was in seeing his loyalty to his state, Virginia, as more important than his loyalty to the United states. At the end of the war, Lee petitioned to have his citizenship restored. Because of a clerical error, it never happened.
Kate Smith, had a radio, television, and recording career spanning five decades, which reached its pinnacle in the 1940s. Smith became known as “The Songbird of the South” after her enduring popularity during World War II. Later, sports teams including the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Yankees featured her. I remember how the Flyers thought that having her sing a ringing rendition of “God Bless America” before games was a lucky charm. Ms. Smith was the featured performer in tours that raised the equivalent of $10B (billion) in today’s dollars to fight Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in WWII. Then came the news of her 1931 recordings of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninny Heaven.” Both songs contained clearly racist lyrics. And they were 2 of 3,000 songs she recorded. At the same time, Smith was noted for having African-American musicians and entertainers on her radio show in the 1940s and her television shows in the 1950s. She had African-American musicians on her radio show more than 40 times, including Bill Robinson (Bojangles), Count Basie, Cozy Cole, the Deep River Boys, the Delta Rhythm Boys, Duke Ellington, Eddie Haywood, Ethel Waters, the Ink Spots, the King Cole Trio, Lionel Hampton, Maurice Rocco, and the Southernaires.
Was I a racist for singing “Swanee River” in grade school? Should Lee’s statues be removed or destroyed because he fought for the Confederacy? Should the Flyers remove Smith’s statue because of her two 1931 recordings?
Or do we need to grow up, leave the statues in place, and leave the pages in the history books? Don’t we need to leave our history in place so that we and others can learn from it? Much of the conversation about the Mueller Report is focused on the redactions. “What’s under those redactions? What is being hidden? Where is the whole truth?” Why are some of the same people who are asking those questions working so hard to redact history?
Let’s say that we, you and I, are on a multi-day road trip together and we made a navigation mistake that added three hours of unnecessary driving. It could have been an error in reading the legend on the map, or entering data in the wrong order in the GPS. Either way, it cost time and gas. Should we get angry at ourselves for playing the fool, and use our mental disk space to erase all memory of the mistake? Or would we be better served by acknowledging our error-prone humanity, analyse and remember the mistake, and likely never make the same error again? Let’s add a third person to our trip, and make him responsible for navigation, or directions, as we used to call it. Assume that he made a thoughtless error, resulting in adding the unwanted hours of driving. Do we get upset, and take the responsibility away from him? Or do we tell him why handling his responsibility is important, and motivate him to do better? And aren’t all three of us much better off if we take the latter strategy? Whichever way we answer those questions, is the way that we should deal with things that others have done in our nation’s past.
Let’s all learn from and build on the good that was done by the people before us, and learn from and remedy–or at least not repeat–the bad that was done by people before us. And in almost every case, from the Kate Smiths to the Christopher Columbuses of the world, both occur in the same person. And in us.
Segueing from the specifics of today’s topic to overall principles, the core, driving principles at Revolution 2.0, are:
And do it all in love; without love, these are empty gestures, destined to go nowhere and mean nothing.
If we apply those two core principles, personal responsibility and brother’s keepers, simultaneously, never only one or the other, we will always be on the right path. Depending upon what we face, one principle or the other may appropriately be given more emphasis, but they are always acted upon together.
The Founders, Revolution 1.0, were declared traitors by the British Crown, and their lives were forfeit if caught. We risk very little by stepping up and participating in Revolution 2.0™. In fact, we risk our futures if we don’t. I am inviting you, recruiting you, to join Revolution 2.0™ today. Join with me in using what we know how to do–what we know we must do–to everyone’s advantage. Let’s practice thinking well of others as we seek common goals, research the facts that apply to those goals, and use non agenda-based reasoning to achieve those goals together. Practice personal responsibility and be your brother’s keeper.
Let’s continue to build on the revolutionary vision that we inherited. Read the blog, listen to the podcast, subscribe, recruit, act. Here’s what I mean by “acting.”
Revolution 1.0 in 1776 was built by people talking to other people, agreeing and disagreeing, but always finding ways to stay united and go forward. Revolution 2.0 will be built the same way.
Join me. Join the others. Think about what we are talking about and share these thoughts and principles with others. Subscribe, encourage others to subscribe. Act. Let’s grow this together.
And visit the store. Fun stuff, including hats, mugs and t-shirts. Recommend other items that you’d like to see.
Links and References
As we get ready to wrap up, please do respond in the blog with comments or questions about this podcast or anything that comes to mind, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And you can subscribe to the podcast on your favorite device through Apple Podcasts, Google, or Stitcher.
Now it is time for our usual parting thought. It is not enough to be informed. It is not enough to be a well informed voter. We need to act. And if we, you and I, don’t do something, then the others who are doing something, will continue to run the show.
Know your stuff, then act on it. Knowing your stuff without acting is empty; acting without knowing is dangerous.
Will Luden, writing to you from my home office at 7,200’ in Colorado Springs.