Friday, January 29, 2010

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States during college. Not as part of any course, but because a character in a Hollywood movie said it would "blow your fuckin' mind."

It did.

Upon reading it, for the first time in my life I consciously realized two things. The accounts of history I had learned up to that point had points of view and that history could have been written from other points of view.

Although I had grown up with vaguely unsettling thoughts about the people, and by people I mean mostly men, and events I learned about in Real History courses, reading Zinn began to give me the words, ideas, and language to articulate- perhaps most of all to myself- that information is and was missing from dominant historical narratives.

After reading People's History, I wanted to learn more about the injustices Europeans and the US government inflicted on Native Americans and so I read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.

I thought about how hypocritical and cognitively dissonant it was for our Founding Fathers to write a document declaring it to be a "self-evident truth" that "all men" were "created equal," in light of that inconvenient truth of slavery. Thinking about how "all men" did not include any woman, would come later. I then became inspired to take courses in African-American History, where the experiences of African-Americans in US history was centered, for once, rather than placed at the margins.

I became appalled at the racist and hysterical internment of Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a government action my Real History courses had briefly and casually told me was done out of "wartime necessity" before going on to talk about More Important Things.

Instead of Great Corporate Men, for the first time in my life I learned that maybe people like me, and the working folks I grew up knowing, might be important to the nation, economy, and life too.

After reading Zinn, I stopped identifying with political parties, having realized that the two-party system is a false dichotomy. What if we- the little people- could stop pointlessly bickering long enough about death panels and homosex to realize that other options might be, not only possible, but better.

And finally, sometime after my reading of Zinn, I thought again about how women have not always had the rights that men have endowed to all "all men." I took a Women's Studies course and, even if I didn't fully "get it" then, I did start thinking much more about this historical oppression of women as a class. I don't know why feminism was my last awakening, I only know that it was. Perhaps it is a lady thing, for us to put our oppression as women last.

For all of these realizations, I am grateful that Zinn's work has been woven into our national narrative. By what it omits and minimizes, Real History has a way of justifying what powerful people have done to society's oppressed, Othered, and poor. While some critics argue that Zinn has done little more than create classes of historical victims, I would disagree. For one, an unfortunate history of a people is better than no history at all. And two, to read a history that includes multiple points of view is to read inspiring accounts of people who "asserted their humanity boldly, courageously, to the larger society" (661). To be oppressed is not always a tale of defeat.

Rest in peace, Mr. Zinn.

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