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Revisiting Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’


Howard Zinn in his graduate school years -- image via Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn in his graduate school years — image via Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, was first published in 1980. Zinn intended it to be an overview of American history, but with a different point of view: “ … this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest.” He framed it as an anti-textbook, an antidote to the history books that serve the needs of the established order.

Having participated in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, Zinn’s life-long goal was to give voice to the powerless, and to speak truth to power. In the first chapter Zinn quotes Henry Kissinger saying “History is the memory of states.” A People’s History was written in opposition to that idea. He writes “… we must not accept the memory of states as our own.”

The book has become one of the best selling works of historical non-fiction. It has been incorporated as required reading into college history curriculum. It has also been attacked, both by historians, who complain of its dependence on secondary sources and anecdote, and by conservatives, who see it as an anti-American, corrupting influence on young minds. Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels celebrated news of Zinn’s death in an e-mail where he called it a “truly, execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”

Controversy aside, is it worth reading A People’s History in 2015? Having just re-read it, my answer to that question is a qualified ‘yes.’ What A People’s History gives the reader is a narrative of the cruelty and oppression in the United States, and of the struggles of the country’s people against it. It does not “misstate” American history (as Mitch Daniels claims) so much as it completes the standard narrative.
 


 
At the same time, it should be read critically. Zinn’s ideological point of view sometimes leads him astray. As Stanford professor Sam Wineburg points out, when Zinn states that African Americans’ attitude towards the Second World War was “widespread indifference, even hostility,” he bases it on flimsy anecdotal evidence, and ignores the fact that African Americans volunteered for the military at rates similar to the wider population. It would be accurate to say that black people were keenly aware of the fact they were fighting for “freedom” when they were denied it at home; it would be apt to quote African Americans’ own words to that effect. Zinn chose to do neither, and says that, “blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany, might not see their own situation the the U.S. as much different.”

He also strains mightily to make the story of the American Revolution one of selfish elites serving their own financial interests by motivating the lower classes with myths about equality and common cause. We can take it as a given that wealthy people look after their own interests, just as everyone does. But people are more complicated than Zinn seems willing to admit. Of course Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, even as he wrote so eloquently about freedom and liberty. To acknowledge his participation in that abhorrent institution doesn’t disqualify him from admiration. It places what was noble and revolutionary about the man in the context of his time. To view him simply as an oppressor and tyrant like King George is just as bad as ignoring the fact that he persisted in owning slaves.

The best parts of A People’s History are when he describes the shameful treatment of the oppressed: Native Americans, African slaves and women. He finds plenty to write about the U.S. tradition of liberation movements; the Abolitionists, Suffragettes and civil rights protestors. Zinn’s bias towards the oppressed is summed up by his quote of Frederick Douglass: “What to the American slave is the Fourth of July?” That question, and others like it, define Zinn’s mission in this book. It is a mirror image to the accepted history of American exceptionalism, freedom and justice.

When it was first published, there was no Internet; one had to physically visit libraries and bookstores to find history in more detail than what you learned in school. It is coincidental but notable that CNN, the first 24-hour news network, was also launched in 1980. CNN’s ‘neutral’ editorial viewpoint, which seeks to find voices on both sides of every issue, explicitly puts different narratives of events directly in opposition.

Information of all sorts is accessible and searchable now in ways never imagined 35 years ago. Zinn’s revelations about previously obscure injustices or rebellions are just a click away. Still, his counter-narrative of American history has been hugely influential. Every Columbus Day is an occasion for discussions of the genocide perpetrated against the native population of North America. Black History Month is celebrated and taught in public schools every year, seeking to introduce students to historical figures that used to be left out of the textbooks.

Zinn can be credited in no small part of this trend. But it sometimes seems that critical thinking about history has lost popularity, even as it has been commonplace to acknowledge the existence of multiple historical perspectives. A People’s History gets name-checked in the movie “Good Will Hunting,” when Matt Damon’s character says it will “blow your mind.” But it seems equally dangerous to take the book as the one true narrative of history.

Sam Wineburg says “for many students, A People’s History will be the first full-length history book they read, and for some, it will be the only one.” Wineburg’s negative critique of the book minimizes its virtues, but he’s right that to say that it should not be the only history students read. It is a book that is best read in the context of the books whose narratives it opposes, and Kissinger’s “memory of states” deserves some attention as well. Without that dialog, and most important, without critical thinking on the part of the reader, it is just a polemic.

It’s also an important text in the context of recent controversies over textbooks in Texas, which have been criticized for downplaying the role slavery played in the Civil war, and the ongoing history of racial prejudice. Arguments about what history textbooks include and omit seems to crop up in the news on a regular basis. This proves, again and again that Zinn’s statement in the first chapter of A People’s History is apt and relevant: “The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interests, where any chosen emphasis supports … some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national, or sexual.”

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Beyond all the controversy, Zinn’s book is a good read. It represents his literary voice and concerns better and more durably than the hundreds of YouTube videos of Zinn speaking. You may feel harangued by his litany of injustices at times, or argue with his occasional lapses in historical representation. But the book has heart, and its heart beats for the cause of social justice. History is always constructed, and the one Zinn built is full of passion for equal rights and freedom.

Martin Luther King — paraphrasing the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker — said, on the occasion of the end of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, “the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.” One can envision Howard Zinn, in writing A People’s History of the United States, as a man straining mightily to help bend that arc. Whatever conclusions one might draw from the book, it’s worth reading just to get a glimpse of Zinn’s passionate, radical soul.


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