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?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Images of Emancipation

Please take a few minutes to watch the video below. Consider the words (below) of Frederick Douglass as you view the photos before we analyze them in the classroom. How did Douglass feel about the "new" medium of photography? {Inspired by a post written by Maurice Berger of the New York Times Lens Blog}
“Negroes can never have impartial portraits, at the hands of white artists. It seems to us next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men, without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features. And the reason is obvious. Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy. We have heard many white persons say, that ‘Negroes look all alike,’ and that they could not distinguish between the old and the young. They associate with the Negro face, high cheek bones, distended nostril, depressed nose, thick lips, and retreating foreheads. This theory impressed strongly upon the mind of an artist exercises a powerful influence over his pencil, and very naturally leads him to distort and exaggerate those peculiarities, even when they scarcely exist in the original.”

 
Images of Emancipation from Spiro Bolos on Vimeo.
Music by Nils Frahm. "Si" from Screws

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Pete Seeger: American Hero

Since we've been thinking about life stories this quarter and since we also considered the pantheon of New Trier's Hall of Fame, I started thinking about my American heroes. My top choice is Pete Seeger, the great folk singer, activist, and peace lover. Pete recently sang at Farm Aid alongside Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp -- a feat all the more amazing when you consider that Pete Seeger is 94 years old!  You may already know about his work with his buddy,Woody Guthrie, who wrote This Land Is Your Land. You can learn more about Seeger on a recent NPR piece, profiling his extra-ordinary life.

In this post, I'd like to hear about the American heroes you admire and why. If you can, please provide examples of their heroism. I'll go first:


I first heard Pete when my wife — then my college girlfriend — and I went on our first date to...where else? A Pete Seeger concert! But Pete's not just a folk music hero in my house; he's also a man of tremendous principle, who has truly lived his convictions. Some examples: He married a Japanese woman in the 1940's when our country was throwing over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans (most U.S. citizens) in prison camps. He fought tirelessly for civil rights, singing with the great African-American baritone, Paul Robeson, when it nearly cost him his life. He inspired many famous civil rights leaders, including Julian Bond, who credits Seeger for opposing Jim Crow laws long before "the Movement" really got underway. Pete even wrote some of the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome." He fought for unions and for the common working man — and woman (since he also advocated equality among the sexes). Check out his song "I'm Gonna Be an Engineer" on our homepage virtual iPod (below, right column). And think about the stories that women are able to tell.  Last, Seeger traveled the world, recording and archiving world music like no one had ever done before.

For these actions he was branded a Communist and banned from appearing on TV for 17 years just when he had reached the height of his popularity. When the ban was finally lifted he shocked everyone by singing an anti-Vietnam War song called "The Big Muddy." Since then he has sung to end apartheid in South Africa and almost single-handedly galvanized efforts to clean-up the Hudson River. He's 94 now, but as recently as four years ago he was nominated for yet another Grammy Award in the category of folk music.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Did he get what he deserved?

While watching Werner Herzog's documentary, Grizzly Man, I noted the words of one man interviewed who claimed that Timothy Treadwell, someone who studied and lived with grizzly bears, "got what he deserved".

What do you think of this statement?

In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he quotes the director, Herzog, as saying, "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder." I wonder what this statement reveals about the director's feelings toward his subject?

Ebert goes on to reveal his own opinion of Timothy Treadwell:
I have a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism, whatever you want to call it, but here is a man who managed to get himself and his girlfriend eaten, and you know what? He deserves Werner Herzog.