Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. –Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World
I am lost in the foam at the mouth of America. It needs to change. I need to change. I seek to strengthen my courage to more actively and boldly stand up for my convictions about the soul of America.
There is inspiration to be had, light to follow. It comes from strange bedfellows. I propose two of them: Harriet Tubman and Carl Sagan.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Tubman. Recently I watched the movie Harriet and felt emotionally, bodily, some things about the soul of America, and I learned things I wish I had learned long ago. I felt ashamed at how little I knew of this American saint, this founding soul in the heart of America. I felt ashamed of slavery in the heart of America, too.
The movie got under my skin, and I am grateful for that. I’m also enchanted by the song that Cynthia Erivo co-authored and sang in the movie’s ending credits. Erivo also starred as Harriet in the movie, magnificently. There isn’t a song or a role she can’t knock out of the park. She is working on playing Aretha Franklin next. Watch for it.
Talk about “standing up” for what you believe in … Harriet Tubman was a miraculous woman. I wish she was that way in more minds. I wish I had known more about her. I wish education in America would teach more about great Americans like her. If she grabbed enough of us by the heart, we might be swayed to understand America outside our little boxes of it.
Freedom is never given voluntarily by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. –Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
There are many “greats,” right under our noses, American greats, great to the bone, great of mind and soul, great of art and song, great of spirit and wisdom. In the coming articles on this website, Dennis Koenig Online, I intend to share things that inspire me to swim out of the foam at the mouth of America. I will share what inspires me to help bring the changes we need, and to help defend the freedom that has never come without cost. There will be some fun in these pages, too, along with the work that I urge you to undertake with me.
I hope to surprise you with some of the things I share. There may be people you think you know, but you will be surprised to hear some things that they say. Some things they warned us about. Some things our leaders and teachers ignore every day as they and their crumbling institutions churn in the foam of the mouth of America.
In the case of Harriet Tubman, the greatness we miss is her embodied proof that black lives matter. They matter so much to what we are, if we are to be what we say we are called to be.
She demonstrates, singing it to us from the pages of history, that there is no giving up the fight to bring justice, to do right, to break free of oppression, to stand up when knocked down. For her, giving up was death for herself and many others. For us, giving up is giving away our freedom, but we don’t understand the risk like she did. We don’t see her example.
A brief study of her life shows that Harriet Tubman was much more than a slave liberator. She embodied the American soul as truly as Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and Ulysses S. Grant.
I hesitated to make this post so much longer by adding the excerpt below, but this is crucial information (and exciting to historians) about Tubman that I suspect almost nobody in the general public knows, perhaps not even history teachers. An enlightening article in Smithsonian Magazine titled Why Harriet Tubman’s Heroic Military Career Is Now Easier to Envision explains why the above photo was so important to them:
“After escaping slavery in 1849 and subsequently rescuing more than 70 other slaves during her service as an Underground Railroad conductor, she became the first woman in American history to lead a military assault. The successful Combahee Ferry Raid freed more than 700 slaves in a chaotic scene.
“After working for the Union army as a nurse and a spy, Tubman worked alongside Col. James Montgomery to plan and execute the mission along South Carolina’s Combahee River in South Carolina. Her spy work helped to catch the Confederate military off-guard and made it possible for a group of African American soldiers to overrun plantations, seizing or destroying valuable property.
“… until recently, it has been difficult to envision this petite-but-powerful heroine because the best-known Tubman photograph, taken in 1885, showed an elderly matron rather than the steadfast adventurer her history describes.
“… All of that changed in 2017 when the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired a photograph of Tubman taken in 1868 or 1869, about five years after the Combahee raid. This image created excitement among historians who had longed to see a younger vision of Tubman. A recent episode of the National Portrait Gallery’s series of podcasts, Portraits, takes a closer look at the photograph’s impact on how we think about Tubman and the work she did.
“Hayden recalls receiving the first news that the photograph existed. She got a phone call about the ‘first known photograph of Harriet Tubman,’ and the person on the other end told her, ‘She’s YOUNG!’ Tubman was about 45 when the photo was taken. When Hayden saw the image, she thought, ‘Oh my God, this is the woman that led troops and that was so forceful and that was a nurse and that did all these things and was so determined.’ This image, long hidden in an album kept by a Quaker abolitionist and teacher, reveals the fierce woman heralded in historical accounts.”
Click the cropped piece of the photo of Tubman above to open a full-screen version of the entire photo, a seated portrait.
In the movie, and in the song video, Stand Up (below), the Combahee Ferry Raid liberation of those 700+ slaves running en masse to freedom is thrilling. If you are prone to strong empathetic experiences, it may bring you to tears.
Biographical text is displayed during the closing scenes of the movie. It says:
Harriet Tubman was the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, leading over 70 slaves to freedom. During the civil war, Harriet became a spy for the Union Army. She led 150 black soldiers in the Combahee River Raid, freeing over 750 slaves. Harriet remains one of the few women in U.S. history to lead an armed expedition. She later remarried and dedicated her life to helping freed slaves, the elderly, and Women’s Suffrage. She died surrounded by loved ones on March 10, 1913 at approximately 91 years of age. Her last words were, “I go to prepare a place for you.”
I call this “crucial” information partly because of the military connection. As we defend democracy, we may find ourselves facing mortal attacks, likely in the form of terrorism, gang violence, and raiders seeking food and supplies. We may find ourselves armed, or helping armed defenders, not by choice but by necessity. Hard to do? Yes. Tubman initially joined the military as the only black woman in a white male regiment. Hard to do? Perhaps. We may look to her military career for that aspect of the American soul; joining the defense without letting fear win over, as she did when liberating slaves.
Don’t say an armed conflict can never happen to us, on our soil. That’s naïve. We have to consider preparations. Readiness is not pessimism. It is belief in the ability to overcome against the odds.
Remember January 6th!
Harriet Tubman is one of the most important kinds of American hero. She came from nothing, had nothing, knew nobody special, and changed the lives of countless people from that nothing to something, to freedom. She also inspired others to stand up for human rights, by her uniquely potent passion for freedom and justice, her innate leadership skills, and her wisdom.
Watch the movie. Learn about Harriet Tubman (link to her in the National Park Service). Get her under your skin. She won’t get there unless you open up and bring her in. Go get her (link to her in Wikipedia).
Let Cynthia Erivo help to inspire you. Open your heart to the song below. Emotion is essential to the mission to change the soul of America. Sink into the song. Watch the video imagery closely. Immerse yourself in every sound and every syllable of it. Let it get to you.
Then help us all stand up.
This is not just an artist singing about a hero. The real Harriet sang beautifully, too. She used it for signaling to guide her companions through endless danger to freedom. We may need to sing messages secretly in the dark to each other soon, too, as we defend ourselves and the nation from thugs who rule by raw power, not by love and law.
Let it get under your skin, down to the bone, where we need it most, to help us stand up. The work begins internally.
I am serious. Those who would tear our rights from us are hyper-charged with emotion about their delusions. There is some part of Harriet in you; one or more aspects of your inner nature. Let the music set it loose and have sway in your thoughts.
SONG VIDEO: Stand Up by Cynthia Erivo
The movie, the song, reflections on Harriet Tubman and the way of things in our history, who we are, why and how, all get under my skin enough to make my heart well up and rally hungrily for that higher ground I keep falling from.
Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals. –Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait
President Biden said that his 2020 presidential campaign was about “saving the soul of America.”
Soul? How do you define soul for this nation? What we’ve got is a sick one.
Save the soul?
No, change it. The mission must be reformation, true democracy, justice and equality for all, not just for some. The mission must be to save and protect all people, not just the white and wealthy. Save workers for democracy, save democracy for workers. Rebuild democracy. Regulate institutions that have been running us instead of us running them. Preserve us from greed. Make capitalism work for everyone. Keep peace on the streets; make us safe from cop killers and from killer cops. Teach reasoning not just information. Reform the soul of America into one that loves all of its people. We are called to love our country. We need a country that loves us, too. We need a new country.
We were warned. A thousand times we were warned. Here is one of the most recent, most prescient, most elegant, most well-informed warnings, by someone you may be surprised to hear from …
In the year before his death, in Carl Sagan’s 1995 (last) book, The Demon-Haunted World; Science as a Candle in the Dark (co-authored with Ann Druyan, his wife) Carl Sagan described his vision of today, in his words, as “a foreboding.”
We now live the forebodement.
Sagan was an American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, science popularizer, and science communicator in astronomy and other natural sciences.
Note that he published this in 1995, a pre-millennial premonition.
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. … The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. —pp. 25-26
Charlie Rose is one of my favorite stars in journalism, commentary and interview. The errors ending his public career do not undo his accomplishments or his virtues. This is Carl Sagan’s last interview with Charlie, in 1996, the year Carl died. The interview is prompted by the aforementioned book.
INTERVIEW VIDEO (20 min.):
Carl Sagan’s last interview with Charlie Rose, 1996
VIDEO (4 min.):
Carl Sagan with Johnny Carson, and remembered
on TV news for his words quoted above:
“The dumbing down of America … a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
Wake up. Stand up. Get ready. It may get bad.
We’ve been warned by so many for so long.
It is not too late to reform the soul of America.
We like to be deluded. It’s easier that way. Ignoring warnings is actually kinda cool. Shows how tough we are. We don’t need no stinking warnings. We’re invincible. Fighting is for soldiers. Our freedom is already fought and paid for.
We have no idea what we are talking about. Neither do the soldiers. They are pawns. We are ignorant. It works out nicely for those in power.
SONG VIDEO: A Better Place by Playing for Change
This video was created through a partnership between Playing for Change and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund. We realize that true change for the good of everyone always comes from the hearts of the people, and with music, we can unite together to make the world A Better Place. Playing For Change (PFC) is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music, born from the shared belief that music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome distances between people.