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Christopher Columbus, Ray Charles, and the Way It Turned Out

Today is Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, depending on your preference as a freeborn American. We have nothing against indigenous peoples, and count some among our ancestors, but we’ll spend the day playing old records by Ray Charles in celebration of the fellow who set off from the Old World and inadvertently found a new one.
To the more progressive way of thinking, ironically enough, Columbus is one of history’s greatest villains and his voyage one of history’s greatest catastrophes. If only Columbus had suppressed that dangerous human instinct to discover what is beyond the horizon, according to this progressive line of thought, the indigenous people would have been spared all the subsequent unpleasantness and the rest of the world would been spared the annoyance of modern America. This alternative history has a certain appeal, what with everyone living in perfect harmony with nature and bare-breasted women cavorting on the sandy beaches and all that, but it’s always struck us as rather hopefully speculative. One must ignore the likelihood that the indigenous people would have inflicted all sorts of unpleasantness on themselves over the past many centuries, as all people tend to do, and forgo all the life-enhancing discoveries that have resulted from that dangerous human instinct to discover what is beyond the horizon. One must also deny that America, for all its past sins and remaining faults, is one of the greatest things that has happened to humankind over the past five centuries and perhaps far greater than what might happened if everyone had just stayed put in their diversity-lacking homelands.
The late Flip Wilson had a very funny bit about Christopher Columbus in which the great explorer explains to Queen Isabella that “If I don’t discover America there’s not going to be a Benjamin Franklin, or a star-spangled banner or a land of the free and the home of the brave, and no Ray Charles.” In Wilson’s telling the queen panics at the thought of no Ray Charles, and immediately agrees to finance Columbus’ journey to America when he explains “That’s where all those records come from.” It’s a shrewd bit of anachronistic humor, but it also seems a profound rebuttal to all the Columbus-bashers who would rather celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Living in perfect harmony with nature would be cold in the winter and hot in the summer, the beaches where the bare-breasted women cavort will always be far away, the rest of the progressive vision of history’s perfect conclusion sounds quite dull and lacking in adventure, and the part about no Ray Charles is too horrible to contemplate.

We’ll do what we can for the indigenous peoples, which will probably involve modern medical discoveries and a technological economy, but we’ll also take some time out today to be grateful that Christopher Columbus brought the Old World’s know-how to this hemisphere. Christopher Columbus was one of those rare men who refused to stay put and dared to find out what was beyond the horizon, and he discovered the land where the Ray Charles records came from, and that’s worth a day of celebration.

— Bud Norman

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