The Perils of the Humanities or How I Became Human

Hal Cannon

November 9, 2002, on the occasion of receiving the Utah Governor's Award in the Humanities

In the past few weeks I've been thinking about how we become human. About a year ago I heard an interview with an African scholar who came from a country with a history marked by tribes killing each other with the blessings of their gods. When asked why he considered himself a humanist, he replied that he wanted to inhabit a world where we take responsibility for the actions of humans rather than a world where our pride was reflected in the fates of gods. Since hearing this, I've thought many times about my own personal responsibility for the world.

I was brought up with a certain posture. I was never taught that I came from nobility but I was taught to stand tall as a Cannon. Compared to the maternal side of my family, the Reynolds family, the Cannons had a certain air, a certain formality.

A few years ago my wife Teresa and I went to Ireland together. We were on a search to find Irish pastoral people who could recite poetry for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. It was Teresa's first visit. And immediately she began to see faces, catch gestures that signaled to her she was among her own ancestral tribe. I've always been drawn to Irish music and culture, but I had surmised that Ireland was merely a cultural cousin to my tribe, the proud and independent Manx, for I knew the Cannons came from the Isle of Man.

In our travels we ended up driving through the town of Letterkenny in County Donegal where we decided to stop for the night. We spotted a reasonable looking B&B and when we registered the red- faced proprietor noticed my name and exclaimed, “Did you know that Letterkenny in Gaelic means ‘the hillside of the Cannons'.” How interesting. The next morning in a nearby bookshop I ran across a local history that told me that the Cannon clan had been the ruling family in the area until the twelfth century when the O'Donnells conquered and scattered them. Most of the Cannon clan stayed, but some migrated as far as the Isle of Man. I'll never forget how the historian phrased it, “Then the Cannons made a gradual descent into peasantry.”

Needless to say, my interest was piqued. When we returned stateside I was determined to learn more about the early history of the Cannons. I first went to Davis Bitton's history of my great grandfather George Q. Cannon. I was disappointed to find that in all of 553 pages there was a single sentence that described the background that shaped George Q. Cannon's life before his conversion to Mormonism. It read, “The Cannon parents, George and Ann were both from the Isle of Man. George's father, Captain George Cannon, his family well provided for in a sturdy house in Peel, was killed at sea while suppressing a mutiny in 1811.” Just to keep things straight we are talking about three generations of Georges here: Captain George Cannon, his son George the immigrant, and the grandson George Q. — Utah pioneer, church leader, businessman, and senator, my great-grandfather.

Undeterred, I went to an old family history compiled by Beatrice Cannon Evans. From the chapter entitled “Bold Captain Cannon,” I read this quote, “George Cannon, the father of George Cannon the immigrant, is the most picturesque and romantic figure in our history.” It goes on to outline gallant Captain Cannon's exploits as a pirate of conscience avoiding egregious taxes levied by the King, sort of a Robin Hood character. This was the story I'd grown up with. I remember attending a family reunion once where children dressed in pirate costume sang a Pirates of Penzance-like chorus all about our daring ancestor, Bold Captain Cannon.

As I read on I came to an excerpt from Captain Cannon's ship log titled “A Journal of a Voyage per Ship Iris from Liverpool to Bonney Africa.” It was then that my heart stopped. The entries were factual, no editorial message: “Messed 420 slaves, expended 200 yams, 13,045 remains, also beans and rice.”

As I read further I began to see the bold captain in a new light. I learned he was a slaver who made at least three trips from the Gulf of Guinea to the Caribbean with human cargo. In the end his own men rose up against him, killing him and leaving his family back on the Isle of Man destitute. After that, his children were forced to move to Liverpool to seek their fortunes. It was then that they were introduced to Mormonism. Like many in Europe at the time, they were people looking for a new way and Mormonism held the promise of the new spiritual path in a New World. In my family's origin myth, the family misfortunes had nothing to do with the conversion; it was purely a conversion of faith.

My family has long taken pride in the story of Bold Captain Cannon, the daring buccaneer. Why suggest now that he could be Evil Captain Cannon, the slave trader? Does this revised image cast aspersions on my clan? Am I breaking the commandment, “Honor thy father”? What, exactly, does it mean to respect our forbears?

I suspect we all yearn to take pride in the generations that we descend from, to find nobility and honor there. And yet I wonder — who would my family be today if Captain Cannon had not been something of a scoundrel? I would like to think they would be good, solid people, and yet I doubt that they would be the specific people they are today, rich with the particular love of country and strength of faith that marks the generations of Cannons I've been privileged to know. People seldom leave their home ground or change their spiritual assumptions when things go well. Captain Cannon's death at sea bankrupted the family financially, and I'd like to think, too, that it propelled them to act against the very act of slaving. These 200 years hence, we look at such issues very differently than did England in Captain Cannon's day. In the British Isles and much of Europe, Africans were considered sub-human and besides, the slave trade was the most profitable in the world. And yet, in their guts, everyone involved in it had to have known it was ghastly.

At the very time I was struggling with such questions, I read the Booker Award-winning novel by the British writer, Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger. It was the story of a slave ship captain, mutinied at sea. It could have been the story of my great-great-great grandfather. And as I read that book I came to imagine the world of my forbears and to understand the complexity of our legacy, in a new and compassionate way.

The great Irish ballad singer Franke Hart once told me that “the victors write the history but the vanquished write the songs.” The human dilemma is that so many stories surround any one event. We need stories that give us hope, yet we also need stories that ask more questions than they answer. In the end, our success as human beings depends on the stories we choose to live by.

In his book Telling Stories, Michael Roemer suggests that, “Today, most stories help us live and die by distracting us from the Sacred.” Years earlier, Bertrand Russell suggested that the modern disease is an immunity to eloquence. Eloquence, true eloquence, has the potential to change us. If we are not immune to it, we can choose the stories that get us closer to the sacred. For me, the sacred starts with the fact that we have no control over whom, where, or when we are born, but we do have some say in how we live now, in which stories we choose to guide us.

I was recently in Charlotte, North Carolina helping organize a conference of Grantmakers in the Arts. On the last evening of the conference a barbecue and concert of local culture was held out in the country at a restored dairy barn. My friend and folklorist George Holt had arranged a concert for the group. Nearly two hundred of us showed up in buses and as we entered I encountered a startling site. On one side of the long serving table was a bar and a cocktail party in full progress. On the other side, forty African Americans, all dressed in black, stood around nervously sipping iced tea and sodas waiting for dinner to be served.

What I saw drew me to the side where I didn't belong. I realized for the first time I had never been among rural black people. This was a choir of older folks. Most were thin and fit, the way people look who have worked hard physically all their lives. They stood with a certain dignity that reminded me of other rural people I'd known. After dinner we moved upstairs to a very large room with a high arched ceiling. It was almost like a cathedral, a shrine to agriculture and rural life. The group, the Together As One Choir, was made up of people from over a dozen country congregations who came together solely for the purpose of singing the oldest style of hymns and spiritual music. After being introduced, they filed to the front and began to sing their first number. It was well into the song before I began to recognize the words to the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It was not the melody I knew but the message was the same. What remains in my memory was the sincerity behind the voices, the depth of tradition in this hall and the awe I shared with all in attendance.

What can I take from that choir and their song? It's miraculous to me that 200 years after these people crossed the ocean on ships like the one commanded by my ancestor, they are still singing songs that resonate with the echoes of Africa. And among the lyrics they choose to sing are ones that give permission to change, to reinvent ourselves. “Amazing Grace” is such a song. It was written by John Newton, a ship captain who, like Bold Captain Cannon, traded in human cargo. But he woke one day with the knowledge that he had to change his life. He could no longer turn away from the humanity that stared back at him in his daily commerce. He quit the slaving trade. He became an abolitionist and a man of the cloth.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.

He wrote from this new commitment,

I once was lost but now I'm found
Was blind, but now I see.

This is a song of redemption. A song of humanity, a song that helps me become human. It reminds me that the great themes of the humanities are great because they apply to all humans. The peril of the humanities is the same peril in religion or any dogma, and it comes when we choose not to take personal responsibility. “Amazing Grace” was not Captain Cannon's song, though it might have been if he had chosen it. I'd like to believe that at some level his children did choose it, as they turned away from their past toward something they could believe in with full hearts.

What does it mean to honor thy father, to honor the past? I believe it means first and foremost to know the past. Change comes when we have the courage to take strength from the good and move away from what no longer serves us, from what we know in our hearts is wrong. In this, we also honor the present and the future.

I'm fifty-four years old. The actuarial tables tell me I am well launched on the second half of my life, and I'll admit that I sometimes find myself falling back on the old saw that the world is going to hell. But in fact I believe that, for all our foibles, we do make progress. The fact that we not only no longer traffic in human souls but find the practice incomprehensible is only one in a myriad of progressions we take for granted. Each step of the way, the humanities have provoked us and prodded us, guided us and girded us, urged us forward and given us direction during the times we fall back.

I have never seen the United States so smug and self-assured as we are now. I don't pretend to understand the complexity of our relationship with the world. After all, my proving ground has been the American West. Yet, even here at home the breach between urban and rural, rich and poor, those with access to information and those without, traditional folks and modern people — the gaps all seem to be widening. We complain at every turn that we are bridled by political correctness rather than seeing our responses prompted by empathy and decency. We are selectively blind to people we afford human rights and to conditions that need our action for change. So many things we do as a nation will live on, and history will provide plenty of contemporary Captain Cannons for future generations to agonize over as I've agonized over my forebear.

And yet, around me, every day, I see profound lessons in goodness and humanity. Often they are as simple as a song being sung by a country choir. They remind me that today, this very day, we need to turn to the great themes of the humanities, to apply them personally, to take wisdom as a gift no matter where we find it. This is the grace of the humanities, an amazing grace.

Hal Cannon is trustee of the Dick Burton Foundation and of the Fund for Folk Culture, and is a GIA board member.