Howard Zinn (1922–2010)

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HISTORIAN, AUTHOR AND ACTIVIST Howard Zinn died on January
27, 2010. He was 87. He was involved in social justice
movements and the author of over twenty books
including A People’s History of the United States.
Reading A People’s History was, for me, one of those
moments that I’ll always remember. During my junior year
of high school, my Catholic Social Justice teacher suggested
the book, knowing that I was interested in teaching history.
When I began reading, the book was almost impossible to
put down. The stories were not only incredibly riveting but
my attention also was grabbed by the fact that so much of
this history had gone unreported in my previous history
courses. I immediately wanted to find out more about Zinn
and the divergent history he so eloquently described.
Zinn would be the first person to admit that his work is
not neutral, but it serves as a counterbalance to the godlike
tone and revisionism of modern textbooks by giving
voice to unrepresented and underrepresented groups. As
Howard wrote, “My history… describes the inspiring
struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism, of
the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of
working people, of the socialists and others who have
protested war and militarism. My hero is not Theodore
Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general
after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century,
but Mark Twain who denounced the massacre and
satirized imperialism. I want young people to understand
that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over
by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional
liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring,
and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of
Independence, which says that all of us have an equal
right to ’life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The history
of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving
against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make
those ideals a reality.”
Striving for the ideals of the country did get him in professional
trouble. Zinn was a history professor at Spelman
College in Georgia and an adviser to the Student Non-Violent
Coordinating Committee. He was ultimately fired for
insubordination due to his support of and participation in
civil disobedience actions with his students. One of his
students, author/activist Alice Walker discussed Zinn’s firing,
saying: “He was thrown out because he loved us, and
he showed that love by just being with us. He loved his
students. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens.
He didn’t see why we
shouldn’t be able to eat where we
wanted to and sleep where we
wanted to and be with the people
we wanted to be with. And so, he
was with us. He didn’t stay back,
you know, in his tower there at
the school.”
Ultimately, Zinn’s efforts
showed the disparate interests
between corporations/elite politicians
and the nation’s people.
This theme was made clear in his
seminal work, A People’s History
of the United States. From the
instance I first read his book, I
became thankful for Zinn’s scholarship
as it is very much needed.
As sociologist James Loewen
noticed about most history classrooms:
“Students consider history
the most irrelevant of… subjects
commonly taught… African
American, Native American and
Latino students view history with a special dislike. They
also learn history especially poorly… If you’ll pardon my
grammar, nonwhite students do more worse in English and
most worse in history. Something intriguing is going on
here: surely history is no more difficult for minorities than
trigonometry or Faulkner. Students don’t even know they
are alienated, only that they don’t like Social Studies or
aren’t any good at history.”
As a 7th grade Social Studies teacher, I have found Zinn’s
work indispensable to combat the problems Loewen’s analysis
has uncovered. The first lesson my class does is a poll. I
ask my students how many like history as their favorite subject.
At most, two or three people raise their hand. For the
rest of the period, the class develops a list of reasons why
they don’t like history. Invariably, the lists become “the book’s
too big, it is boring, people never seem to make mistakes, the
stories are melodramatic and that it doesn’t apply to real life.”
To understand why they do not
like the traditional texts, we look at
how and why textbooks are written.
To deconstruct melodrama, we
take the case of Helen Keller as an
example to discuss how human
beings become heroes who never
err. We even discuss cultural alienation
by dissecting the idea of
I am able to bring in supplemental
materials like Zinn’s A People’s
History to set up discussions
that give voice to unrepresented
or underrepresented people and
ideas. One of our early historical
discussions is about Christopher
Columbus. We go through all the
positive contributions that
Columbus’ exploration had and
follow that with a reading from
Zinn’s A Young People’s History of
the United States that details
Spain’s crimes as they were documented
by Bartolome de las Casas. To make a connection
with current events, we frame the discussion about
whether or not Columbus should be honored with a
national holiday based on what we know. Since I’ve instituted
these different perspectives and voices, many students
have told me about their increased interest in history
and that it is now one of their favorite subjects. Zinn’s
efforts are a direct influence in this success.
While Howard Zinn may no longer be with us, his
impact will continue to be felt for generations to come
because it has helped uncover a more representative version
of American history.

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