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Howard Zinn: “A People’s History of the United States”

I was a writing teacher for a few years in the early 90s, and was lucky enough to land a history gig a few days before one semester’s start. This would mean a lot fewer blue books to grade – a plus – but little time to “prepare” a class that would run from Columbus to the day before yesterday. And I only had three days.

I got to thinking about this when I stumbled onto the July 4th Special: Readings From Howard Zinn’s “Voices of a People’s History of the United States” over at Democracy Now. Because that semester, A People’s History of the United States saved me. It was my constant reference that year and became required reading for every subsequent semester I taught.

This is a book designed to get you to sit up and pay attention, right from page one, where there’s the kind of thing to make a reactionary swoon:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:”With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

I hear it now: Shouts of “revisionist history” across the web. Well, was Columbus a saint? For many years kids were taught an expurgated Columbus story, that he discovered America, that he was a brilliant navigator, and a hero. Was that the truth? Or the quote above?

How about both.

History – just like our every day lives – is not a collection of neatly cleaved stories out of a TV sitcom. Human experience is rich, and complex, and full of contradictions. Those we call heroes one day can break your heart the next.

When it comes to people – and what’s history if not a story about people? – nothing’s ever simple. This is what grown-ups understand, and why a lot of thoughtful folks these days reject commercial infotainment and the mainstream press as written for a childlike audience with childlike simplicity. What’s that kind of approach to current events get you? Eight years of a social and political disaster called the Bush Administration, for one. So just like a healthy democracy requires an enlightened electorate to make socially responsible decisions about where we’re headed, social history requires an honest, self-critical understanding of where we came from. Otherwise we’ll just keeping barreling on to the next catastrophe.

So it’s important to reject the term “revisionist history” outright because it makes the assumption that everything is already known and there can be no new ideas. But that’s ridiculous. We don’t reject new technology as “revisionist technology”. When ice is found on other planets we don’t call it “revisionist science”. We’re constantly making new discoveries, whether in a test tube or in the library. “Revisionist” history is a claim for reactionaries to resist new ideas which might – heaven forbid – lead to social change.

That’s what makes Zinn’s book such an important contribution to our collective understanding of the past. It’s OK to be proud of our past and to be happy with the personal freedoms we have. Lincoln WAS a great leader, if you ask me. Washington WAS a fine first president. I’m very pleased to live in a country where I can write this very post without fear of incarceration, for instance. But we didn’t get these freedoms out of the establishment’s generosity. It took a lot of pushing and shoving – much of it ugly – to attain most of what we take for granted now. It’s going to take the same watchfulness to make sure they stick around, too.

Zinn’s book wasn’t the first to make these points but his book is the most readable and engaging one I know and thus its success. In fact it’s a page-turner, a must read for anyone who wants a fuller, more honest view about where we came from and where we’re headed. It’s one of the most important book I’ve ever read. It may be for you too.

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July 19, 2008   |  Filed Under Political   |    Permalink


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