Thursday, January 28, 2010

R.I.P. Howard Zinn

I have very few all time favorites. When it comes to movies, television, food, vacations, and music – anything that could be the subject of a top ten list – I can never settle on a number one. However, I have known for over a decade that my favorite book is, and will remain, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. From the first time I read it as a freshman in high school, it changed me.

“History is written by the victors” is a cliché, often said with a sense of resignation and inevitability. Zinn chronicles the history of our nation from the perspective of those that do not typically have a voice – the factory worker, the soldier, the migrant laborer – and in doing so flips American history on its head. Columbus was a scoundrel, the Revolutionary War was fought for the benefit of landowning white men, and American incursions in Latin America were frequent and unjustified – all sacrilegious statements.

Zinn taught me to ask questions that wouldn’t have otherwise crossed my mind. He made me question my government, my education and myself. That is why A People’s History will never be displaced as my number one favorite book.

From the introduction of A People's History:
My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person however he or she strains, can "see" history from the standpoint of others.
In addition to his refreshingly radical viewpoint, Zinn was also a master of primary source material, letting the poor and downtrodden speak for themselves. He used beautiful poems, songs and letters to convey the defiance, heartbreak and resolve of the people’s movements he chronicled.

In college, I had the opportunity to see Mr. Zinn speak. I still remember how eloquent, wise and feisty he was. At 80+ years old, he was not on a farewell tour – he was intent on inspiring the next generation of grassroots activism. After his talk, I had the privilege of shaking his hand and asking him to sign my copy of A People’s History. I told him it was an honor to meet him.

Howard Zinn will always be my favorite author and A People’s History of the United States will always be my favorite book because I know what a profound impact it has had on my life. I’m far from perfect and my development is nowhere near complete, but I value intellectual curiosity and compassion above most other traits. This is what Howard Zinn taught me.

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