Sunday, October 27, 2013

What is your Columbian Orator?

Nearly four years ago, historian Howard Zinn 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 in 2003.

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 most of us are 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 passage 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 the "interesting thoughts of my own soul": my own deepest-held beliefs. His book thus provided a model for expressing them openly. Zinn had 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 is your Columbian Orator?


Ben W. said...

Similarly to your example of Howard Zinn, the recent death of musician Lou Reed has had a pronounced impact on me. This is largely due to the fact that he was one of the key creators of my Columbian Orator. The music of The Velvet Underground, particularly their debut album, has been very influential to me, although in a slightly different way than that of Frederick Douglass. Douglass's Orator gave him a new view of slavery, while mine has given me a new view of music, and art in general. The Velvet Underground is often cited as one of the most influential bands of all time, and critical to the way music has developed since their late 60s to early 70s career. Upon first hearing their music, I was letdown. It was like nothing I'd ever sounded like they weren't even trying! Especially the lazy vocals of the singer, which were just a bit more lively than mumbles. For such acclaimed musicians, their music seemed deceptively simple. It was Lou himself who famously said, "One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you're into Jazz". However, I continued to listen to them, and gradually gained an appreciation for their unique approach to music, to the point where they became one of my favorite bands. Their album(s) will forever be important to me, for helping me question what I had previously thought were the limitations of art.

Josh Sussman said...

Ever since I was little I loved cooking. It was not until a few years ago that I really got to understand and feel connected with cooking in a way that I never had before. I never really tried to do much cooking before that point because I was usually more likely to be the one observing my dad and grandma (who were the main cooks in our family). My grandma, who I call my Bubbie, was the first person who taught me to cook. The first recipe she gave me from her recipe box was for her famous banana sour cream cake. The banana cake recipe was my Columbian Orator in the respect that it made me believe in the power of a recipe. Knowing that I made it myself and that it tasted just like my Bubbie's was the turning point in my love for cooking, just as the Columbian Orator gave Douglass a new viewpoint on slavery. I felt like I am embracing an important tradition in my family that I want to continue.

Anonymous said...

My Columbian Orator? Hands down the Calvin and Hobbes comics by Bill Watterson, specifically "It’s a Magical World" (the last book in his collection). My dad introduced me to these comics when I was young. He loved Watterson’s work- so much that I was almost Calvin Iida. But regardless I would spend countless hours flipping through the pages, each strip taking me on a new adventure. What I love about Calvin is his sense of imagination and amazement. No world is too small or shipping box to dirty for him to take on- he finds endless ways of creating something from nothing. It’s his sense of energy and ever-lasting inquiry that still amazes me today. His ridiculously funny and classic tales of a young boy and his crazy tiger Hobbes is what kept me up at night during gradeschool, and definitely deserves a spot on the shelf next to the Columbian Orator.

PDF said...

I had a different, but equally profound experience the first time that I listened to Pink Floyd's "Animals" several years ago. Up until that point I had mostly listened to generic classic rock like the Beatles and Zeppelin (not that either of those are bad.) After listening to the musical odyssey that is "Animals," my musical views were changed. I started to value longer, more thought out songs, with more value on groove than complexity. Not only that, but I applied the same reasoning to life. I started to focus more on the substance of my actions as opposed to how they appear on the outside. The album forever changed my thoughts on music and life.

Erik L. said...

My Columbian Orator would have to be the book Life of Pi. I read it in 8th grade when I was first starting to really make decisions for myself, particularly when it came to religion. I was at that point part of a religion that had some policies I didn't agree with. Such as their views towards the GLBQ community. Along with this, I just didn't like the way that religion was being taught to us. I hated going to Sunday school at eight in the morning, being told what to believe and that it was the ONLY way to believe it. We literally learned about god out of a textbook. Without totally realizing it at the time I was searching for something more. The topic of religion is discussed throughout Life of Pi, especially at the beginning when Pi talks about how he became a member of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism all at the same time. I found this open ended view towards religion utterly fascinating. It seemed as though he had found what I was searching for, which was the actual act of discovering one’s own beliefs rather than being told what to believe. After reading this book I took it upon myself to ask my parents to switch churches to one that was more open and accepting. At a time when I first started wondering if there was more to religion than sunday school and conformation, this book was just about the only thing I had to support these beliefs.

Also, I have to agree with Luke, Calvin and Hobbes rules.