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Listening to Howard Zinn

Prominent historian and activist Howard Zinn passed away last week on January 27, 2010, at the age of 87 years old. Best known for his book A People’s History of the United States, which has sold almost two million copies to date, Zinn wrote history from the “bottom-up.”  I had the pleasure of seeing Zinn in person in San Francisco last year during his Voices of A People’s History event, a tour that recruited actors and actresses to read excerpts from Zinn’s book, such as Tecumsah’s Speech of the Osages, Mary Ellen Lease’s Wall Street Owns the Country, and Vito Russo’s Why We Fight. In honor of Zinn’s memory, in this article I will be listing some audio files of Zinn speaking, some of my favorite Zinn books, and some biographical information to anyone that might be interested in learning more about such an amazing individual.

Listening to history

Zinn’s Artists in a Time of War is an overview of the history of the United States and features Zinn discussing a number of important themes and events, such as patriotism in modern times and the Spanish-American War. also hosts a sizable amount of Zinn audio files, which can be found here. Another possible method that I feel doesn’t get enough attention is looking into audio CDs and/or tapes of some of Zinn’s books, such as A Peoples History of the United States, on CD.

Bottom-up history

As I mentioned earlier, Zinn was well-known as a historian for writing bottom-up histories and for popularizing the field. Each of the books that I will list, with the exception of Howard Zinn’s biographies, fits this description.

1)A People’s History of the United States: This may seem obvious, but, if you haven’t read it yet, I strongly suggest that you look into it. It’s easily Zinn’s best-known work, and it will at least provide you with a decent background in U.S. history.

2) Voices of a People’s History: This work is generally considered a followup to a People’s History of the United States and contains a number of the first-hand accounts mentioned in Zinn’s more popular work, although the former works better for establishing a historical background.

3) You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train: Easily one of my favorite Zinn books. This autobiography by Zinn is absolutely fantastic and provides a great personal history in general as well as an interesting perspective on U.S. history since the mid-1920s.

4) Postwar America (1945-1971): This book truly opened my eyes in that it forced me to reconsider all of the history that I learned about from this period in school. I’m rather fond of Jack Greene’s description of the book, which was included in the editor’s forward and calls the book “a stringing indictment of the dominant groups within American society for their failure to live up to the principles on which this nation was founded, a relentless and probing revelation of the glaring discrepancies between the rhetoric of American liberalism and the facts of American life in foreign affairs, social organization, corporate behavior, race relations, the administration of justice, and the tolerance of dissent.” Honestly, although A People’s History motivated me to study history and definitely helped me to think more critically, Postwar America might actually be my favorite historical Zinn work.

5) Passionate Declarations: Basically a small collection of essays written by Zinn covering a broad range of topics. I especially enjoyed Zinn’s arguments regarding human nature which he links to warfare, stating, “History is full of warfare, one cannot find an era free of it; this must mean that it comes out of something deep in human nature, something biological, a drive, an instinct for violent aggression. This logic is widespread in modern thought, in all classes of people, whether highly educated or uneducated. And yet, it is almost certainly wrong. And, furthermore, it’s dangerous.”

6) SNCC: The New Abolitionists: Zinn’s account of SNCC’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is particularly interesting because he actually spent a significant amount of time traveling with the organization and experiencing many of the events that he describes first-hand.

The life of Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn was born in 1922 in a poor area in Brooklyn, New York, to two poor Jewish immigrants. Truly growing up at the start of modern times, Zinn watched as his father struggled with a number of temporary jobs and his mother worked tirelessly towards the well-being of the family. As Zinn became increasingly class-conscious he began to hate the notion that one could become rich in America simply by working hard, noting (in his autobiography) that his family had no refrigerator, shower, radio, or telephone during most (if not all) of his childhood.

Zinn became a self-proclaimed radical in 1940 after attending a nonviolent demonstration at Times Square and being beaten by policemen on horseback. Regardless, later that year, Zinn began working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, which, as he began to notice large discrepancies in the treatment towards the African-American employees, strengthened Zinn’s views on class consciousness and race. Zinn joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 and, most notably, was ordered to assist in the bombing of a small French town called Royan to allegedly rid the area of some German troops, although the incident also resulted in the deaths of roughly 350 French civilians. Royan drastically influenced Zinn’s views on war, which is extremely apparent in his Postwar America book with his discussion of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Upon his return to the United States, Zinn married the woman that he had been seeing before the war (Roslyn) and enrolled at NYU with the help of the GI Bill. Struggling to support his growing family, Zinn also began working as a night-shift worker in a warehouse and as a part-time instructor at Upsala College. The hardships that Zinn and his family were forced to endure, particularly with regard to their residence in a low-income housing project, further strengthened his views on class consciousness and race.

In 1956 Zinn and his family relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, so that Zinn could accept a teaching position as the chair of the history and social studies departments at Spelman College, which was, at the time, an all-female, all-African American institution. Immediately encountering racism while looking for a place to live, Zinn began asking his students to write down their first memory of racial prejudice . Touched by the responses to his inquiry, Zinn proposed the formation of a Spelman Social Science Club to advocate social chance in the area, soon becoming the group’s formal teacher adviser. The group’s mission soon began to focus around the issue of desegregation, which eventually, after a lot of work, led to the formal desegregation of the Atlanta library system.

In 1963 Zinn joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) for a early voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama. Fascinated by the attitudes and hard work of these “youngsters,” Zinn wrote a first-hand account on the group titled SNCC: The New Abolitionists which focused on “SNCC people in action” and “the quality of their contribution to American civilization.” Zinn’s important position within SNCC led to some (to be blunt) damning attacks on the federal government, particularly with their seeming inability to protect civil rights workers from violence and torture during the movement, much of which can be found in a chapter titled “I Want To Know: Which Side Is The Federal Government On?” (based on a line that was forcibly omitted from John Lewis’ speech in Washington, DC).

Zinn’s involvement with SNCC has led some individuals to distrust his work as too biased, claiming that he should be more objective in writing historical accounts. However, Zinn seemed to hate the notion of “objectivity,” stating that it is “neither possible nor desirable.” Specifically,

It’s not possible because all history is subjective, all history represents a point of view. History is always a selection from an infinite number of facts and everybody makes the selection differently, based on their values and what they think is important. Since it’s not possible to be objective, you should be honest about that. Objectivity is not desirable because if we want to have an effect on the world, we need to emphasize those things which will make students more active citizens and more moral people.

Well, I’ve rambled on for quite a bit, so I’ll end with my favorite Howard Zinn quote. Thank you for taking a moment to join me in mourning the loss of such an amazing individual.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history of not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

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4 Responses to Listening to Howard Zinn

  1. Paul Riismandel February 4, 2010 at 7:55 am #

    Howard Zinn was also a great friend and supporter of community radio throughout his lifetime, making countless guest appearances on many of community radio’s most prominent programs.

    You can find many hours of his lectures and even pieces he produced in the Pacifica Radio Archives.

    He was also a frequent guest on David Barsamian’s long-running program, Alternative Radio.

    He appeared on Democracy Now in early January, and made many more appearances earlier.

  2. bob mason February 4, 2010 at 4:43 pm #

    Howard Zinn may have been a great supporter of community radio, and he made many other rich contributions to the left struggle. But I think he is over-rated as a historian and a leftist thinker, because his overly simple bad-guys good-guys approach has helped the left marginalize itself in the post reagan years. For example, Howard signed petitions for Bob Avakian, who ‘Maoist’ politics are an embarrasment to serious political analysis. A People’s history of the United States, similarly focuses on specific movements – women’s movement, ecology, civil rights, anti-war, etc, and does not tell the real life day to day story of american history — there is little discussion of the nitty gritty details of factory and farm work, no nuanced discussion of the complexities of (e.g.) the new deal, the compromises made, etc. Only the good people in the movements and the bad guys in the corporations and the government. I would go further, and say that Zinn did not just focus on specific movements, somewhat decontextualizing them from their social milieu, he fetishized them — as if the history of the US is the history of how the people organized in these struggles. What about all the other stuff, like the periods and people who did not organize, and the struggles within the upper class elites and within the middle class? This may not be the heroic tale Zinn always wanted to tell, but it is the stuff of history that people must understand in order to develop successful politics.

    This is meant as food for thought for leftist thinking, not to trash Howard. Rest in Peace, Howard, your heart was always in the right place.

  3. EscapeVelocity February 4, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

    Rest in Peace, Howard, your heart was always in the right place.

    I suppose you believe Stalin’s and Mao’s were too. Ill be mourning Zinn as I mourned Stalin and Mao, with a celebratory beverage. Too bad his abysmal propaganda People’s History of the US is now being used as US History texts in US high schools. His history of anti American and anti Western hatemongering will endure.

  4. Matthew Lasar February 5, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    If EscapeVelocity actually mourned the death of Josef Stalin, who died almost 60 years ago, he’s even older than I am. But at least he’s up on standard operating procedure here in blogoland: compare everybody you don’t like with Stalin, Mao, or if all else fails, Hitler.

    Perhaps EV didn’t invoke Der Führer because (a) he forgot to, or (b) Zinn was a bombardier for the Air Force during World War II. In any event, here’s what Zinn actually thought about Stalin, in case the facts are relevant to anyone.

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