Harriet

The conversation about critical race theory has gotten so overtly racist and fascist these days that I have to suspect that in the years to come, lobbyists will be trying to prevent gradeschool and even college students from learning anything about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. When this movie came out, it broke a lot of glass ceilings in the film industry. And like the message of Martin Luther King, I think it frightened and angered a lot of people who weren’t prepared to grapple with the history of their own country and region.

When I was a kid, visiting Savannah, Georgia, I smiled to see so many statues of horsemen in the parks, merely because their horses were handsome and the bronze was nicely done. In hindsight, I am shocked at how oblivious I was at that age about the use of symbolism to prop up myths about Southern heritage that are totally out of touch with the reality of American history and the Civil War.

One of my favorite children’s authors, Richard Adams, wrote a book glamorizing the life of General Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller, and I remember getting in trouble for bringing that book to school because it showed a confederate flag on the cover. I reacted defensively, because I saw it as a neutral horse story, and I saw the civil war as an uncontroversial backdrop to that horse story. I didn’t appreciate how distorted Richard Adams’s description of the civil war was at that age. He gave all the standard excuses for the insurrection – none of them were valid, but I bought the story hook, line and sinker. I didn’t believe that slavery was the root cause of the war.

Now that I know more about American history, I can see why people are fighting to suppress the truth. It may have been true all along, but to a lot of Americans, the fact that the Civil War was about slavery is news – and unwelcome news. It challenges what they learned in school. It challenges a lot of their assumptions about themselves and their heritage. And it raises a lot of questions about why that information was suppressed for so long after the war was won.

This poem, based on the 78th Psalm, is about the parable of the Exodus as a story told both among slaves and among freedmen and women, before and after the Civil War, to give context and inspiration to slaves and the children and descendents of slaves. For those who don’t know the movie Harriet or the story of the underground railroad, Harriet Tubman used the name and the legend of Moses when she traveled to the south to free slaves by stealth and by force, both before and during the Civil War.

Come near to your teachers, children, listen.
Open up your minds to history.
What I have to tell you has been passed down,
generation after generation,
and those who learn this story come to know
what our parents, and theirs, and theirs, went through.
We would not have you live in ignorance,
or raise your children without having known,
what wonders our own people worked for God.
They fought so you and I could be born free!
We, too, are descended of Moses;
his teaching was passed down to slaves,
and our ancestors raised up their children,
in secret they taught the commandments,
so that, in their hearts, they would uphold real laws,
for the sake of you children, their yet unborn,
that you might teach your sons and daughters
to place their trust in justice, truth and love,
and not forsake the miracle of freedom,
abiding by the righteous laws of God.
That they not join the lost generations,
rudderless and headstrong motherless boys,
as listless and as feckless as the damned,
and stripped of all religion – naked bones.
Such courage as they had in petty crimes
availed them little in the bitter south,
for they had no higher laws to live by,
and never thought to fight against Jim Crow.
And they forgot the war their parents fought,
and never looked on Moses as their own.
Before their ancestors were taken slaves,
another Moses led the way to freedom.
To part the sea that held his people back,
God held the waters fast – the waves stood still.
Beyond the land of Egypt, by a wisp
of cloud by day, a flame by night, He guided them.
This Moses showed them where to find cool springs,
when they believed themselves undone by thirst.
He shattered a great stone deep in the waste,
and water gushed free, clear as mountain streams.
And even then, his people challenged him,
unable to believe in a just God.
They mocked his gratitude for miracles,
demanding whether next, it would rain bread?
Among themselves, they bantered about God.
They joked, “Can He lay a feast in this desert?
If indeed we should thank him for this drink,
and He alone gave us this gushing spring,
why does He not serve bread at our table?
Where is the meat He has roasted for us?”
And God heard them well, and He answered them,
His people felt the heat of His wrath,
and their children, and theirs, paid a price.
For without belief and trust in providence,
they placed no value on their own salvation.
As easily as clouds scoot through the sky,
God brought to earth the bounty of the blessed,
a grain as fine as coriander seed,
for bread as white as hoarfrost, just for them.
This was a feast fit for Pharaohs and kings,
and it covered the desert surrounding their camp.
He drove the flocks of wild birds forth on storms,
the wind whipped from the east and from the south,
and pheasants and wild geese collapsed, exhausted,
and feathered feasts spread everywhere among them,
all the camp was littered with fresh meat,
and Moses and his people dwelt in plenty.
That day, they stuffed themselves without scruples,
for God had gratified their appetites.
They hiccupped, bellies strained against their belts,
when, even as they chewed the last morsels,
the force of God’s reproof struck in their midst,
and strong men in their prime were robbed of breath,
the flower of their youth snuffed out as one.
Yet even then, they heckled bitterly
against the thought of miracles and fate.
Thus in exile, without lands or laws, they went
their ways, remorselessly cynical, lost.
At times, at the point of the sword, they prayed
for help and looked to this God of old.
In these moments, they remembered their roots
and the works of Moses and Abraham.
These things tripped easily from their tongues
and they they spoke not true – although they prayed,
They made other pacts on the side, spread their bets,
and paid short shrift to the covenant.
Even so, the Lord had mercy for them,
curbed His anger toward them easily,
And sought no retribution in the end.
for He did not forget man’s frailty,
a creature born to die unrecompensed.
For men who have been slaves know only hate,
and cast into the wilderness, they doubt.
Of God they knew but little, trusted less,
and seizing freedom, cast aside all yokes.
What did your forebears know of miracles,
of holy intervention in men’s crimes,
of wonders done in Egypt, or on Sinai,
of water churning with slaveholders’ blood,
and poisoning the Pharaoh’s great estates?
Their Moses stole through riverbanks by night,
the cries of frogs and crickets masked her calls.
She led her people north, and left their crops
to feed the birds and wither in the fields.
If God had struck their cotton down with hail,
and sickened their moss oaks with mistletoe,
had robbed them of their livestock with a plague,
and bled their wealth, he could not have done more.
She roused freed slaves to fight the southern states,
to burn with the indignities they’d borne,
and raised and army to confront the whites.
Was Egypt’s Moses more war-like than theirs,
who called the wrath of God down on his foes,
and watched the seven plagues denude their wealth?
The Civil War, too, claimed the slavers’ sons,
a generation died on those bleak fields.
and Harriet, their Moses, led the way,
shepherding her flock to Canada.
She listened to God’s signs and quelled their doubts,
and led them where no enemy would find them.
And she delivered them up to freedom,
far from the slave-holding southern states.
And when they went south again in arms,
they fought for the right to their own land,
and won the right to see their kin again.
Yet the whites would not be reconciled,
and the terms of the peace they rebuked.
They went back to their old ways at once,
like a rifle that always misfires.
Their fiery crosses offended God,
these men who idolized whiteness and hate.
And the God of Moses reacted swiftly,
cutting off the Jim Crow whites from grace.
God withdrew from their homes and their hearts,
the spirit no longer shared their travails.
He turned His back while demagogues and crooks
assumed the reins of power in the south.
Even those He had freed felt him absence,
for his wroth no longer made distinctions.
The youth of their cities burned out, took drugs,
children had children, unmarried, alone.
The statesmen who fought for justice were slain,
and their legacies died with them, unmourned.
Now you must stir yourselves from this stupor,
like magicians freed from an evil spell.
You must fight the corrupt, pandering shills,
bring the ignorant poor out of their thrall.
The old ways will not serve you in your task,
the hesitancy of the middle path won’t work.
You must take new vows, invent new values,
true to the past, but not bound by its errors.
You must retake the commanding heights for love,
before the earth and all that’s in it burns.
Be able to lead those who only follow,
a shepherd to the lost, not the lucky few.
For if you cannot lead manind, the rest
will go to ruin from their ignorance,
and the elect will go without in turn.
Do not silence your conscience in this task,
but do it well, with statecraft and with nerve.

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Filed under Acting, Corruption, Directing, Dream Ensemble, False controversies, Poetry, Roll Credits

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