When I was a 20-year-old college student floating through junior college with no sense of purpose, or no sense of feeling the need to accomplish anything, I ran across Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
Like a lot of people my age, I first heard of the book in Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
I wanted to read this history book that would supposedly “blow my f***ing mind.”
I read chapter one, which told the story of Christopher Columbus arriving in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and how easy he said it would be to enslave the natives because they were so nice and giving.
That wasn’t the history I knew, but it definitely seemed more accurate than the story I was told as a youth of how Columbus discovering America was a good thing for everyone, including the newly enslaved indigenous population.
This initial story did blow my mind, but no more so than the rest of the book.
Professor Zinn’s thesis in the book that the battles going on in the United States are always the repetition of the constant struggle between the haves and have nots makes a lot more sense than the mythology of the American melting pot.
Its stories about poor blacks being pitted against poor striking white workers, which led to the racist acts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made much more sense than the idea that racism sprung out of nowhere.
The fact that slaves did rebel and rebelled often completely contradicts the idea of the docile cotton picker on Southern plantations that we learned in grade school.
After reading A People’s History, it became obvious that there was never a Golden Age in America. In parts of the country? Yes. For a few? Yes. But not for all.
Not for most, actually. But we never learned this in our history.
The stories about those suffering from the oppression of the wealthy are never told. This is what made A People’s History such a treasure. Professor Zinn told these stories of oppression and then of protest. He told the stories of the people, not of the victors.
Mainstream historians and conservative commentators have criticized him as a “polemist,” or a controversialist.
Professor Zinn did speak against the mainstream, and he did often argue against the oppression of others. He advised students who participated in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which attempted to desegregate the South by participating in sit-ins and marches.
He was also a powerful voice in the anti-war movements of the 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s and 2000s.
Professor Zinn always said that during times of war, those who suffer the most weren’t the instigators, rather they are the poor soldiers fighting and the people of the countries in which the fighting is taking place.
That fact is evident today as those who suffer the most in Afghanistan and Iraq are the hundreds of people at a time who get blown up and killed or maimed up by car bombs in marketplaces and mosques. And the wealthy Osama Bin Laden isn’t fighting. The poor, uneducated, disaffected Muslim youth is the one blowing himself up.
But Professor Zinn is more than a “polemist.” He taught that history is a subjective subject. He taught that writers left out parts they deemed unimportant to the story. The “unimportant parts of the story” usually happened to include those on the losing sides of these battles: the indigenous, the blacks, and the poor.
And when history is seen through this point of view, it makes much more sense.
If it wasn’t for my chance encounter with A People’s History of the United States, I never would have studied journalism and political science once I got my act together in junior college.
I became a reporter to tell the story of the have nots, but there just didn’t seem to be enough time or space in the newspaper for these.
And that’s why now, as a teacher, I always try to be completely honest with my students by painting as complete a picture of something as I possibly can.
It’s this point of view of a constant struggle that continues to shape the world around me. From the healthcare debates in Congress to the banking industry’s games to the unfairness of American education, these are all still battles between the powerful and the poor.
It’s also through this point of view that I learned to fully love my country. It is full of faults, but the people who live here will always fight for their rights despite the consequences.
A woman from Michigan called in to NPR today and said that Howard Zinn was “a warrior” and that we must all pick up the slack now that he’s gone.
Thanks to Professor Zinn, I think I’m as ready as possible.