Sunday, May 2, 2021

My Old Kentucky Home - An Abolitionist Song

 I was born and raised in Kentucky and have always loved our state song - My Old Kentucky Home. Like most Kentuckians I was taught the myth of the writing of the story, that the song glorified the life of the ante bellum South and that Stephen Foster, a cousin of the Rowan family, wrote the song after a visit to what was called Federal Hill. Federal Hill was a brick mansion built by a federal judge name Judge Rowan. He owned slaves and used his slaves in the building trades because Federal Hill was not a plantation, When he died his finances were a mess and his son, John Rowan, had to sell slaves to pay off debts. Susannah fame. She is the one who visited and likely told these stories to her brother, Stephen in Pennsylvania. Stephen Foster was an abolitionist and read Uncle Tom's Cabin. The motivation behind the writing of the song was to tell the story of slavery in Kentucky, a border state, with few actual plantations. Federal Hill was not a plantation. Therefore, Foster wrote My Old Kentucky Home as a mournful tune to bring to light the way slaves were treated and sold with little regard for family and roots. The following passage in the Forward to my short story "Juneteenth" which is in a collection of short stories called "Finding New Pangaea" available on amazon.com. In a country where history has been so skewed even if it is taught, marginalized people can be swept up in movements to get rid of "racist" writings and documents and there is a move to do this to My Old Kentucky Home. Instead of getting rid of the song, teach its meaning and what it was all about in regard to slavery in Kentucky. It deserves to stay the state song and not only be played but have the lyrics with it, especially at the Kentucky Derby.  

Juneteeth

Foreword

 

There was a time in our history when people dehumanized others in return for profit. These immoral acts were shrouded in secrecy and rationalized to maintain a status quo that allowed many to be more equal than others. In the 1850’s United States’ poets, philosophers, writers and composers began to use their freedom of expression to attack the most hideous travesty of all - the institution of slavery. One such composer was a young man named Stephen Foster who died penniless and alone in 1864 at the age of 38. Perhaps his early death contributed to the legend surrounding one of his minstrel songs written in 1851– “My Old Kentucky Home.”  

The legend of “My Old Kentucky Home” grew from stories told by Madge Rowan Frost, the granddaughter of Judge Stephen Rowan who built Federal Hill in 1793. Madge considered herself a southern belle and fostered the story that her cousin Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” after a visit to Federal Hill in the 1850’s. Using this legend helped her sell the property she had inherited to the state of Kentucky in 1926. The Rowan version of the story is the one told every year in the outdoor drama “The Stephen Foster Story” performed in the amphitheater on the grounds of the state park. According to stephen-foster-songs.com, however, “there is actually a lot to be said that Foster never stayed in Bardstown. It is even very probable that the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” provided reasons for the song.” 


When one hears all three verses of “My Old Kentucky Home” it becomes apparent that this song is more than a lyrical comment of the hoop-skirted life style surrounding a mansion in the antebellum South. Rather, the song is a lament for a young, black man who is being sold “down the river,” torn from his family still living in the Old Kentucky Home. In fact, research into Foster’s minstrel tunes from the antebellum South indicates that Foster was trying to humanize the dark skinned people in captivity and mourned the fact they were bred like horses to be beasts of burden and bought and sold like chattel.

Stephen Foster’s inspiration for “My Old Kentucky Home” was more likely an attempt to describe the sadness and grief felt by slaves who helped build the home, started families and then were forced from it. The slaves who actually lived in Federal Hill were the house servants who most likely lived in the attic or basement of the home. But whether living in a cabin, basement or attic, Rowan’s slaves worked side by side with Judge Rowan in building Federal Hill and this is where they and their children lived.

 Like any human beings, the slaves longed to live surrounded by their loved ones in homes that they not only built but maintained daily. It is probable that the subject of “My Old Kentucky Home” is a slave who has been “sold down the river” who is voicing his sorrow over his separation from his home and family. “My Old Kentucky Home” has a mournful tone that echoes what any human being taken from home and family would feel. Tom’s feeling of pain and despair is no different than what his white masters would feel in similar circumstances. The blacks felt great joy and celebrated when they were freed. Foster didn’t live to see this but I’m sure he would have felt great joy for them as well.

 


Monday, February 22, 2021

"She knows everything about history but nothing about her own."

 I happened to see an episode of In the Heat of the Night today. I am sure that this episode was run to coincide with Black History Month. The story was about honoring a Black woman in Sparta, Mississippi (a woman named Odessa) who was the first African-American who had tried to register to vote there in 1964. The plot is not so important as the message intended - story of a person who was a leader in the movement for voting rights for African Americans in Mississippi in 1964. The older civil rights leader (a Rosa Parks type) had a granddaughter who was in high school. The city official (a Black woman) who was to give the award was talking to Odessa's daughter and granddaughter about the importance of the ceremony. The young girl dismissed it and left the room. When she left her mother said, "she knows everything about history but nothing about her own." That statement reminded me of myself. 

I grew up in a family where communication with my grandparents was limited at best and secrets were well kept. All of my grandparents (except my mother's step mother who raised her) were dead by the time I was eleven and most of them were dead by the time I was born. There was never an opportunity to question and talk to any adult about behaviors that were "none of my business." Any effort to get answers was dismissed and I was told to stop being so nosey about adult matters. In my effort to learn about my past, I became a student of  history. I won awards in history in high school and graduated from college cum laude with honors in history. I spent my professional career as a high school history, government and English teacher. I also won awards for my work in the classroom. I knew everything there was to know about the his story of this country that I taught - Anglo-Saxon, male history, but knew almost nothing about my own unless it connected to the Anglo-Saxon male. While teaching American history in Albuquerque, New Mexico in the 80's and 90's, I started learning a much different version of history. This was the time after Alex Haley's book "Roots" captured America's attention and the story of the African American and slavery started to reach national attention. I started changing the way I was teaching history at this time. As the African American movement grew, other ethnicities also benefited and in the 70's the largest minority group of all (females) started realizing how invisible they had been in American history and government. In 1991 I approached my principal about a new idea I had about teaching American history based on what I was already doing in the classroom for which I was earning awards. 

My idea was based on a class I had in college titled Interrelationship of the Disciplines. I went to a college operated by the Southern Baptist Association in Louisville, Kentucky. The college did not require students to take courses in the Baptist doctrine nor even attend chapel (which was voluntary). What they required was this class that was a study of the disciplines (art, literature, philosophy, government, religion and science) of the major civilizations in recorded history - both eastern and western). Students learned about the history of the times through the study of the art, literature, philosophy, music, science, religion and government of each period. My proposal was on a smaller scale. I proposed that the administration create a class called humanities taught in a two hour block period of time to eighth grade language arts and American history students. American history and English would be taught through exploring the humanities as they developed in our history. The curriculum was approved and all eighth grade students were assigned to a humanities class. I was the lead teacher and worked with science and math teachers as well as special education teachers in developing a relevant, cross cultural curriculum that would serve students as they matured.

The course took on a life of its own as other teachers became part of the team. I included the bilingual department that focused on Spanish history, language and culture, special education teachers, a Navajo teacher to bring in Indigenous education and even taught one year with a special education teacher and the students from her resource room into the classroom. There were lots of research projects in which teachers as well as students researched the history and literature of all the cultures that have made the United States their home. As I taught this class some insights into my own history and how I fit into America's story began to take shape. During this time I began to realize how ignorant I was about my history. The thought occurred to me that with all my training and education if I had not learned these things, what about the majority of people in this country whose education about the myths of "white man's burden," manifest destiny and the building of a country based on freedom for all but in practice only a few had been imbued into the consciousness of Americans for centuries. It seemed time to tell everyone's story and not just the his story I had learned for most of my life. During these years the seeds of an idea for a book came to me. 

As I taught I began to learn. I started opening doors to my past that had been so well guarded for years and began to find out how my ancestors (especially female) fit into the scheme of America's story. When I retired in 2003 I began work on a book - a generational saga that was intended to tell America's history as it was lived by all citizens of this country since 1720. Some of the characters are loosely based on characters from my own ancestry. Others are archetypes from the groups that make up a "melting pot" of citizens in this country. The name of the book is The Peacemaker - http://kentuckywoman.net. Since 2009, I have continued research into my  own history and am finding a peace of my own about who I am as a tri-racial (Indigenous, African American and English) female whose ancestors were both victims and patriots. My ancestry includes men who have served in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, all of the Indian campaigns of the 17th and 18th centuries, Confederates and Union soldiers in the Civil War and World Wars I and II. The stories are not glamorous. These are the men who fought and returned home to live lives of "quiet desperation" unknown in the annals of time. 

 The women in my ancestry were invisible to me and the only woman I really knew that I could relate to was my mother. My mother was a strong woman who kept our family together and was responsible for our survival - both breadwinner and homemaker. She never became a great scientist or writer nor did she have any profession other than a nurse's aid. This is how she supported our family. I had no role model but her and during my formative years no national model of women of importance. My mother taught me what it was to love your family and community, keep a clean and safe home environment and always do what was in front of me to do. She did this by going to work outside the home when my father became disabled emotionally, keeping a spotless home, working in the garden, (her passion), canning or cleaning. She did this at all times with a song on her lips, a smile and gratitude for all we had. I learned a lot in my formal education and have been able to live a comfortable life style during my 74 years, but watching my mother and remembering her simple, homespun philosophy has been what has made the difference. Despite the fact that she had to work outside the home, my mother knew what it was to be a woman; compassionate, loving, loyal, joyful and nurturing. These are the qualities that we need in this country if we are to be "great again," not the qualities of attaining power and wealth by destroying the foundations upon which we live or die. I have a dream that when all the women of this country come to understand this we can reclaim our rightful position in society and become the promise of the free world.