Your American Adventure: Part I
Those are the Voices of Liberty, singing Woodie Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. It’s one of the experiences to enjoy when visiting The American Adventure. The American Adventure at Epcot is many things. As one of eleven world showcase pavilions, it offers a gallery, entertainment, retail, and food & beverage options. But uniquely the name of the pavilion is also the name of its primary attraction, which is a condensed theatrical show portraying of the history of the United States. It sits in a grand theater that is seldom full. There are many reasons for this. But I believe if one truly understood the messages of this show, they would not only attend, but find context and solutions for today’s world, and importantly, hope for the future.
I’m your host, J. Jeff Kober. You can find our podcast here on Podbean, iTunes, Spotify, MyTuner, and ListenNotes. This post and podcast is not a travelogue describing The American Adventure. Rather, this is about your American Adventure. Allow me to offer some context.
A Context for Your American Adventure
This week my oldest son and daughter in-law welcomed our first grandchild into the world, a beautiful, healthy little girl. Next month my oldest daughter along with her wife will welcome our first grandson. My wife and I are grandparents. We are overjoyed. If you have grandchildren, you no doubt understand how we feel.
But both events are occurring in an era of difficult times, made uncertain by the economy, by a world-wide pandemic, and by global protests to a brutal killing of a black man by an officer of the law. I am a white middle-aged man who has no context of what it means to fear for the color of my skin. Because of this I have been blessed with many opportunities others have not been afforded. Among those blessings was a mother who sat me down many a time and instructed me how to stay out of harm’s way. But she never had to tell me to be in fear because of the color of my skin.
Now, all that is changed. Both my granddaughter and my grandson to be are biracial, with roots extending to countries like Colombia and Haiti. Because of the color of their skin, their mothers may very well have to host that difficult conversation. And that troubles me greatly.
People are grappling about what to do, how to make their voice heard, how to create a better future for themselves and for others. I think the challenge is multi-faceted, and I think it calls for many solutions in many forms. For some that is speaking out online. For others it is protesting. There are many ways to influence matters of such importance. I encourage everyone to find their voice in this. For me, one approach I have taken is to turn to something I am passion about. And I hope in doing so, it will offer enlightenment with others who hold the same.
At the end of every podcast, I invite listeners to follow the compass of their heart. In this instance, I am following the same, and have prepared a message that I hope will not only someday be of inspiration and understanding to my grandchildren, but will to you as listeners as well. Most of you have seen The American Adventure. It will be several years before I will have a chance of taking my grandchildren to this attraction. It will take many more to appreciate it. Hopefully it will not take long for you to do the same.
To you as well as to my grandchildren: This is your American Adventure.
E Pluribus Unum
As the curtain rises and in the darkness of the proscenium, the voice of Ben Franklin is heard to say:
“America did not exist. Four centuries of work, of bloodshed, of loneliness and fear created this land. We built America and the process made us Americans–a new breed, rooted in all races, stained and tinted with all colors, a seeming ethnic anarchy. Then in a little, little time, we became more alike than we were different–a new society; not great, but fitted by our very faults for greatness.”
So at the beginning of this show Ben Franklin welcomes us then begins to note that the words came from a great statesman. Mark Twain offers no recall of having ever made that statement. Franklin then credits John Steinbeck of the 20th century.
I want to offer a little more context for Steinbeck’s statement. In his writings, he states:
“Our land is of every kind geologically and climatically, and our people are of every kind also–of every race, of every ethnic category–and yet our land is one nation, and our people are Americans. Mottoes have a way of being compounded of wishes and dreams. The motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum is a fact…
“America did not exist. Four centuries of work, of bloodshed, of loneliness and fear created this land. We built America and the process made us Americans–a new breed, rooted in all races, stained and tinted with all colors, a seeming ethnic anarchy. Then in a little, little time, we became more alike than we were different–a new society; not great, but fitted by our very faults for greatness, E Pluribus Unum.” –John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck is a great American author, whose best known work is Grapes of Wrath. He speaks of many other matters in this and other writings–particularly in regards to how we treat each other. I’ll speak more of him at the end, but the idea that Disney chose to have an idealist like Ben Franklin quoting John Steinbeck a century or so before Steinbeck is born is not to be missed.
Steinbeck emphasizes the concept of E Pluribus Unum. It’s what is on those coins people no longer carry in their pocket. It means, “Out of many, one.” Its origination, however, came not from coinage but from the development of the Great Seal of The United States. Seals are seldom used anymore, but in those days, a seal was essentially the official stamp of approval.
You can see what that seal looks like in the foyer of The Hall of Presidents over at the Magic Kingdom. But in the hallway leading to The American Adventure, you don’t see a seal, you see dozens of flags, all of which flew over some part of the United States at one time or another. This is the context for which we enter the theater. We leave what is many different entities and become one. We become E. Pluribus Unum. Ben Franklin will speak of this when he mentions to Thomas Jefferson how difficult it is to get thirteen clocks to chime at one time. Clearly Franklin would understand how much harder it is to make 50 chime. That is our current circumstance. But we can all become E Pluribus Unum.
Getting states to chime together is difficult. Getting its citizens to chime together. That is much harder. While complaining that one stroke of the pen brings two changes from Congress, Thomas Jefferson notes that John Adams should have written the document. Franklin notes that by his own admission, Adams thinks Jefferson could write circles around him.
John Adams is not present in The American Adventure, and probably should have as he played such a critical role in the formation of our country. But that would have probably doubled the length of this show. That said, the two were feuding founders. They spent years in debate with one another, seldom agreeing, often arguing, but deeply respecting the other. So intense was their feuding friendship, they would die within hours of each other, on the very day of the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
These individuals had their own flaws. There isn’t anyone mentioned in this post that isn’t. Still, E Pluribus Unum. If we are to find unity we must learn to deeply disagree while remaining respectful of one another.
Before that Declaration of Independence came to be, before that E Pluribus Unum, came protest. We know that one of the biggest of these protests came in the form of the Boston Tea Party, America’s favorite protest. As Ben Franklin shares:
“In the decades that followed, a new challenge began to emerge. They began to grow more and more apart from the mother country. Passion began to govern, and she never governs wisely.”
In one’s heart of hearts, no one should care for protest. Certainly Ben Franklin didn’t. That expression just mentioned comes from a larger letter Franklin writes.
February 5, 1775.
“I cannot but lament with you the impending Calamities Britain and her Colonies are about to suffer, from great Imprudencies on both Sides. Those arising there, are more in your View; these here, which I assure you are very great, in mine. Passion governs, and she never governs wisely. What we can’t remedy we must endeavour to bear. But I find it to me more and more difficult. Anxiety begins to disturb my Rest; and whatever robs an old Man of his Sleep, soon demolishes him. I have however generally strong Hopes amounting almost to an Assurance, that tho’ we may suffer much for a while, America will finaly be greatly benefited by her present Difficulties, and rise superior to them all.” –Ben Franklin
Our founding fathers were anxious about dissension–especially that dissension that comes through chaos and calamity. But even though that stress kept them up at night, they were hopeful about the future. And despite our challenges, we can still be hopeful about the future as well.
When did passion stop governing wisely? It happened when passionate people gathered. Certainly one should not find offense in people peaceably assembling. That is what the sons of Liberty did, and they did it underneath the Liberty Tree. Boston’s first protest against the mother country came underneath the Liberty Tree, similar in concept to the one found across from The Hall of Presidents. It clearly became a symbol of defiance, because a British loyalist actually chopped it down in 1775, even before the Declaration of Independence was declared.
No one can with any reason defend the use of violence. Nor can I find any purpose in looting, defacing, or ruining the home or business of another. But in all my years of growing up with an understanding of the Boston Tea Party, I do not recall any one lamenting the poor souls who lost their shipment of tea. Curiously, it is stated that those ships, the Dartmouth, the Beaver and the Eleanor, loaded with tea all the way from China, were built in America and were owned by Americans. By any other description, it was an act of vandalism. An act that led eventually to freedom. But by means of a long and painful war.
So you can see that actions like these have been around a long time. Protest and defiance is part of our national fabric. It led toward the revolution, and that fight led to freedom. The very freedom I enjoy today. Not always the freedom everyone enjoys as freely.
Ben Franklin notes that thirteen very different colonies became the United States of America. The country starts moving West and Mark Twain takes over the dialogue.
Many An Abolitionist
The voice of Mark Twain enters: “Yes sir, Dr. Franklin, your founding fathers gave us a pretty good start, don’t you know. We still had some things to learn the hard way. Seems a whole bunch of folks found out “We the People” didn’t mean all the people. People like Frederick Douglass.”
We see Frederick Douglass on a raft in the middle of the bayou. In the show he emerges from the right as if sailing down the river, making progress. In truth, the river keeps moving forward, but his raft will move backwards.
“Even amidst the cricket song along Mark Twain’s beloved Mississippi. I hear the noise of chains, and the crack of the whip.”
Frederick Douglass offers here what seems to be two contrasting world views of Southern life around the Delta. But in life, they were more alike than different. The relationship between Twain and Douglass is worth noting. Sources mention that Twain’s ties with Douglass ran deep. “Twain’s eventual father-in-law, Jervis Langdon of Elmira, was a passionate abolitionist who played a major role in Douglass’ escape. Twain, raised in slaveholding Missouri, grew up immersed in the virulent racism of the world around him.”
They go on to say that Twain was a thinking man, and that “his attitudes changed as he traveled the nation. By 1869, as editor of a Buffalo newspaper, he was writing editorials that attacked a lynching in Tennessee.”
Twain would use words to fight against slavery. In time he and Douglass would interact with one another. Frederick Douglass goes on to say in the attraction:
“Yet, there is hope. Hope born from the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin has given our nation a key, which can unlock the slave prison to millions. Anti-Slavery is no longer a thing to be prevented. It has grown too abundant to be snuffed out like a lantern.”
There is a lot to unpack in this narrative. It is filled with metaphor and symbolism. To better understand, here is what Frederick Douglass once stated, which notes that the “key” is not a metaphor, but rather a secondary book, written by the same author.
“Why, Sir, look all over the North; look South, look at home, look abroad! Look at the whole civilized world! And what are all this vast multitude doing at this moment? Why, Sir, they are reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and when they have read that, they will probably read The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin–a key not only to the cabin, but I believe to the slave’s darkest dungeon. A nation’s hand, with that “Key,” will unlock the slave-prison to millions. There is nothing in her reception abroad which indicates a declension of interest in the great subject which she has done so much to unfold and illustrate. The sending of a princess on the shores of England would not have produced the same sensation…Men will write. Men will read. Men will think. Men will feel. And the result of all this is, men will speak. And it were as well to chain the lightning as to repress the moral convictions and humane prompting of enlightened human nature. herein, Sir, is our hope.”
What men wrote, read, thought and felt were the works of a woman. A white woman. A Christian white woman. The Abolitionist movement referenced was largely started by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writings were some of the most read during the 19th century. And did much to influence opinion. She did more with what was perhaps the most powerful form of media in that century than probably any individual could do with online social messaging in this era.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there were many others who never are mentioned in this narrative. Harriet Tubman was a super hero of her time. She and so many others played a role. Still, the reality is, it takes many different people to stand up to truth. Douglass, Twain, Stowe, Tubman and others played different roles in freeing others. They all were unique individuals standing up for what was right. And in the next section, many would die for it.
A Cannonball Don’t Pay No Mind
When Douglass mentions being snuffed out like a lantern, the lights on stage go out, and the conversation between two brothers begins in the dark. The reference made by the pro-confederate son was,
“Trouble makers like Douglass got us into this mess.”
“We only wanted freedom, not war.” retorts the union sibling.
Father breaks up the tumult of words by reminding them that their ruining their mother’s birthday. Mother foreshadows what’s to happen by expressing her gratitude for having all her children together. Then she invites Mr. Brady to take the picture. A beautiful song plays, and it reminds us of the toll the war took.
By the way, that song was not written by some folk artist back in the days of the Civil war. It’s written by a 20th century composer born in Brooklyn, New York, to a Jewish family. His name was Israel Goldener but later he changed his name to Irving Gordon. As a child, he studied violin and eventually became a composer. He got one of his bigger breaks when he was introduced to the jazz great Duke Ellington in 1937. His most famous composition is the song, “Unforgettable”, made famous by Nat King Cole, and again later, by his daughter.
Most people focus on the words, “One wore blue and one wore grey” emphasizing not only the differences but who was ultimately victorious. But we forget one of the most repeated phrases, “One was gentle, one was kind”. This statement is ironic, because a line later states, “A cannonball don’t pay no mind if you’re gentle or if you’re kind.” We don’t know which was gentle and which one was kind. Neither seemed akin to either of those traits when they argue in front of Matthew Brady. But even though both were gentle and/or kind, only one went to war because “two brothers were sold as slaves”. Indeed, not two, but millions. Sold, separated, enslaved, starved and more. The irony of this scene is a white family having a perfect little picture taken of them together, when black families were being torn apart at the same time.
The truth is consequences, whether in the form of a cannonball or other harm, they come to those who are gentle and to those who are kind. Our being gentle or kind will not entirely remove us of the consequences from bigotry and hate, of war and terror. We must stand against such things.
A Photo is Worth a Million Opinions
This story isn’t completely defined by two brothers, or even by the family surrounding them. There is another key figure in this scene. It’s Mr. Brady, known as Matthew Brady.
And what of Mr. Brady? Most know him as Matthew Brady, and many watching the show recognize that most of the images shown on the screen during the song as being his. He took tens of thousands of photos of the war, and they greatly influenced sentiment, to include a picture he took of Abraham Lincoln before the election. President Lincoln is said to have credited that photo as key to getting him ultimately elected.
But there’s another story tied to Matthew Brady and it can be likened to our day. This story was shared by Kayla Randall a few years back:
In March of 1863, an enslaved person known only as Gordon escaped from the southern Louisiana plantation of John and Bridget Lyons.
After a harrowing miles-long voyage, he found safety with Union soldiers camped in Baton Rouge. Gordon then vowed to fight for the Union in a black regiment, where he would eventually become a sergeant.
Before he could fight, he was examined by doctors. They discovered deep, horrendous scarring on his back from whippings received in slavery. Photos were taken by photographer Mathew Brady and published in Harper’s Weekly, the most widely read publication across America during the Civil War.
When Gordon’s story reached the public, it stirred outrage. The photo quickly became one of the most powerful pieces of evidence showing slavery’s brutality. One journalist at the time said, “This Card Photograph should be multiplied by 100,000 and scattered over the States. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe can not approach, because it tells the story to the eye.”
Abolitionists distributed copies of the photograph of Gordon throughout the country to expose the horrors of slavery, and the country paid attention to not just to Gordon’s story, but to slaves like him the world over. Again, these photos by Matthew Brady were critical to turning sentiment in the needed direction at a critical time. If a picture is worth a thousand words, it may shift a million opinions. Certainly it did this month when people saw a black man being chocked to death. We must share the story of all that is good and bad around us.
That’s where I’m a-gonna be
We’ve covered many important points:
- We can become E. Pluribus Unum.
- If we are to find unity we must learn to deeply disagree while remaining respectful of one another.
- We can combine our faults, our weaknesses into being great.
- Protest and defiance is part of our national fabric.
- You do not have to be suppressed to fight for those suppressed.
- Whether we are gentle or whether we are kind, we are impacted.
- We must share the story of all that is good and bad around us.
There is much more to The American Adventure, just as there is much more to Your American Adventure. The show has often been criticized as too short, as missing too many things. Perhaps people will say the same of this podcast and post. But hopefully, both serve to inspire you to find out more about your country. As stated by others, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Let us return again to where we started, with John Steinbeck. John wrote of the plight of the weary and oppressed through much of his life, but no work was better known than The Grapes of Wrath, which became a film starring Henry Fonda at Tom Joad. In this story, Tom takes his mother and family from the Oklahoma dust bowls out to California. They become migrant workers oppressed by the conditions surrounding them. Overwhelmed by their circumstances the workers seek to organize and strike, but guards nearby attack them, and Tom, trying to save his friend Casey who gets shot, ends up killing a guard himself. The scar on his face makes him too easy to be recognized, so he must take flight away from his family, to another place where he can fight the cause for social justice.
One of the great moments in American cinema is Tom Joad’s words to his mother, played by Jane Darwell–the woman Walt would years later call on to be the bird woman in Mary Poppins. Here she realizes she may never see her boy again. This is her plea, and Tom’s response:
“I don’t understand it Tom.”
“Me neither. It was just stuff I was thinking about.”
Tom Joad and Ma may not have understood it in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. But Steinbeck did. And so did Woody Guthrie. He’s best known for This Land is Your Land. But he also wrote a ballad based on The Grapes of Wrath. That same sentiment shared in the film is found in the lyrics below:
“Ever’body might be just one big soul
Well it looks that a-way to me
Everywhere that you look, in the day or night
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m a-gonna be
Wherever little children are hungry and cry
Wherever people ain’t free
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m a-gonna be”
To my grandchildren. I hope you are never hungry. I hope you never have to fight for your rights. And I hope you never lose the freedoms that matter most. But know that what ever your circumstance is, whatever your American Adventure is, That’s where I’m agonna be.