Friday, January 29, 2010

What is your Columbian Orator?

In case you missed the news or the staggeringly large banner on this blog, historian Howard Zinn recently died of a heart attack at the age of 87. I was surprised how emotionally affected I was by his passing -- I certainly didn't know him, but saw him speak on several occasions, most notably at Northwestern University, days before the Iraq War.

I believe Zinn's death had such an impact on me because his writings and life were so formative in how I began to finally think for myself. Although we are all familiar with Zinn's seminal A People's History of the United States, the book I always reference is the lesser-known Declarations of Independence, which has been since renamed.

This work always reminds me of a piece from Frederick Douglass' Narrative, in which he had secretly obtained a book, The Columbian Orator, while in the depths of despair about being a slave for life. He wrote: "Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book....[It] gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance"(23-24). That's what Declarations was for me: an affirmation of my deepest-held beliefs, and a model for expressing them openly. He subtitled his book, "Cross-examining American Ideology", and challenged every one of the assumptions listed below.

‘Be realistic; this is the way things are; there’s no point thinking about how things should be.’

‘People who teach or write or report the news should be objective; they should not try to advance their own opinions.’

‘There are unjust wars, but also just wars.’

‘If you work hard enough, you’ll make a good living. If you are poor, you only have yourself to blame.’

‘Freedom of speech is desirable, but not when it threatens national security.’

‘Racial equality is desirable, but we’ve gone far enough in that direction.’

‘Our Constitution is the greatest guarantee of liberty and justice.’

‘The United States must intervene from time to time in various parts of the world with military power...[to] promote democracy.’

‘If you want to get things changed, the only way is to go through the proper channels.’

‘There is much injustice in the world but there is nothing that ordinary people, without wealth or power, can do about it.’

What/Who is your Columbian Orator?

8 comments:

Caroline C said...

I still haven't found my Columbian Orator. I wonder if this is common among my peers. I've read a lot of good pieces of work, but I don't think any author has impacted me on such a great scale as Zinn did for Mr. Bolos. I also wonder if it is 'bad' that I haven't found my Columbian Orator. In Mr. Bolos' case, it sounded as though he became a better educator through Zinn. I also liked this quote, "Freedom of speech is desirable, but not when it threatens national security." It reminded me a lot of our Perilous Times papers we wrote last semester!

S. Bolos said...

Caroline -- it took me MANY years to find my Columbian Orator. I was certainly older than you, and much older than Freddy D (who was ~12 years old!). There's never a perfect time. In fact, I believe you'll find that the time it happens will be 'just right' for you.

Sam H said...

I think that there have been a series of books that have shaped the way I live my life. Clockwork Orange was rather seminole, though I'm not nearly as violent as that book is. I think that the two authors that changed me the most are Kafka and Camus. What a terrible way to live, basing a life on existential works, but that is sort of the way I see my world. I may gain faith in some purpose to life or a narrative for my life, but now I can't help but think that I am a chunk of organic materials responding to stimuli from my environment. I guess that isn't really what the point that the books were making, but that is what they shaped me into.

Ellie said...

I, like Caroline, havne't found my Columbian Orator. I think is common amongst people our age because not many 16/17 year olds know who they are as a person yet. Even though I don't have a book or an author that has shaped me, my great-grandma has done something similar. Every time she came in town (once or twice a year) she would tell me stories about her life growing up in the early 1920s. These stories act as my Columbian Orator, until I find one of my own.

S. Bolos said...

I like your approach, Ellie. But I wonder if you could be more specific here or on your own blog: what is it about your Great-Grandma's stories that you found so influential?

Maeli G. said...

I'm still searching for the "Colombian Orator" that speaks most to me. When I try to think of one specific work or author that has shaped me more than any other, I draw an immediate blank. Perhaps that's because I believe I am the product of so very many voices, each of which influenced me at a very different time in my life. As soon as any one name comes to mind, it falls away again as another takes its place. These are my most tumultuous years -- adolescence (tumultuous probably isn't a great word to use in that context, but it seemed fitting to me). I'm in constant motion. I'm always changing and changing again as I begin to discover what makes me who I am. I think I'll need to have a better idea of self before I can find the "Colombian Orator" to direct me further.

DPark said...

For the time being, I think that Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank H. Wu is my "Columbian Orator". As I was reading it, I could make so many connections with my past and my opinions. Obviously, I'm don't share a bond with this work as much as Mr. Bolos did, but I found myself agreeing and syncing my mind with Wu. Wu even adds his own narrative portion, which seemed to parallel very closely to past experiences.

Morgan L said...

Like many of my peers I have not found my "Columbian Orator" either. With college on the mind and the topic coming up in class many times I have a strong feeling I will find it there amoung others who likely agree. I think that throughout high school most people haven't found what they want to do or "who they are". Also, friends, hobbies, favorite classes, and general interest I feel are changing constantly throughout these years. Even if they are not major changes. But I think with the influence of professors and the college experience where you really try to figure out what you want to do with your life, it is those people who help you realize this decision that could be a "Columbian Orator".