Farewell to Howard Zinn, the People’s Historian

“If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive movements of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

—Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

The news came yesterday that Howard Zinn — historian, veteran, playwright and activist — had died of a heart attack at the age of 87.

Zinn was best known for his magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States, and for relentless activism against war and oppression in every form he saw. He kept up the fight until the end; giving his last interview just days before his death.

Born to poor immigrants in Brooklyn, Zinn’s family constantly moved during his childhood, staying “one step ahead of the landlord.” He later recalled the experience of “living in poor neighborhoods, seeing people evicted from their homes, their furniture put out onto the street—it seemed to have nothing to do with race or ethnicity, just poverty and helplessness.”

His childhood left him experienced in desperation, and he soon found out about war as well. Enthusiastically joining the Army Air Force in World War II, Zinn flew bombing runs over Berlin, Czechoslovakia and Hungary before participating in the first military use of napalm in 1945. The horrors he witnessed drove him to become a life-long opponent of militarism, convinced that “war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children.”

Upon his return, Zinn took up the career of an educator, but found his own experiences missing from the official histories of his country. He strove to change that, and, instead of standing back, leapt into the civil rights and anti-war movements, inspiring his pupils (including a young Alice Walker), securing the release of POWs from Hanoi and testifying about America’s role in Vietnam at the Pentagon Papers trial.

Through it all, he laid the groundwork for his masterpiece, a book that revealed an alternate universe of dissident uprisings and almost forgotten struggles, simmering just under the surface of the American Dream.

Portrait by Robert Shetterly

Zinn’s goal in A People’s History, first published in 1980, was to tell the underside of America’s history. Instead “the discovery of of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish,” continuing to the struggles of underclasses and rebels in the present day.

It’s an eye-opening book, bringing history to life as a tapestry of stories instead of a monolith of dry facts. If you haven’t read it, do.

Activist academics are a dime a dozen, but what set Zinn far above most was the balance of a deep commitment to his ideals with both humility and perspective. He refused to replace old dogma with new and resisted the easy mythologizing of the oppressed. While he did not pretend that A People’s History (or any other) was objective, he meticulously researched his facts and readily admitted mistakes and oversights.

The result was a history that could be cheered and argued with, but never ignored.

Zinn did not rest on his laurels. A People’s History went through five new versions, as he constantly incorporated new events and discoveries into the narrative. Tireless in his activism, he fought against new wars and injustices that he saw as part of an ancient pattern. In his final interview, he spoke eloquently of the nigh-total ignorance of America’s long history of involvement in Haiti, and how it shapes our public discourse today.

In 2005, he returned to Spelman College, from whence he’d been expelled in the ’60s for his rabble-rousing, and delivered a passionate speech calling on the next generation to resist the easy urge of apathy. There is one line in particular that stands out, a sharp point on his decades-long struggle to make us more aware of the tales that shape our lives:

“The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. The government may try to deceive the people, and the newspapers and television may do the same, but the truth has a way of coming out. The truth has a power greater than a hundred lies.”

Goodbye, Howard Zinn. Thank you for helping to remind the world that history belongs not to the victors, but to all of us.

3 Responses to “Farewell to Howard Zinn, the People’s Historian”

  1. Mark Says:

    Zinn didn’t like it that American history seemed “too nationalistic” when he arrived on the scene. Too bad.

  2. Skipwave Says:

    Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is an excellent documentary on the man.

    Personally, I think “A People’s History” aught to be a required text alongside the now standard tomes in US schools.

  3. Thivai Says:

    I agree with Skipwave that A People’s History should be a required text in American schools, but anyone who has read James Loewen’s excellent text “Lies My Teacher Told Me” (2nd ed. 2007) knows that the corporate textbook stranglehold on education always sinks to the lowest conservative common denominator of misinformation/mythification.

    Zinn was a great inspiration and changed my life.

    We can’t rely on our education system (i’m an educator) Skipwave, instead we need to give copies to the young people we care about and discuss what these textbooks leave out.

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