The People’s Historian
By John Brown
It was never covered in my advanced placement U.S. History class. We didn’t take a bus trip to the battlefield or memorize anything that begins “Four score and seven years ago.”
But we did learn that Lincoln didn’t fight the Civil War to free slaves.
My sister, a seventh grader, recently complained that American history is “War, war, war. All we do is wars.”
My history class skipped wars. Well, not quite. My teacher’s version of World War II was, “There was a war, and the Allies won.”
Instead of wars, we studied the Palmer raids, the Pullman strike and poll taxes. We learned about the systematic removal of Native Americans under pretense of paternalism through a series of broken treaties.
In short, we learned a history seventh graders rarely do.
The reasons? A teacher who jokingly calls William Henry Harrison his favorite president because he did the least damage in his month in office.
But more importantly, our textbook wasn’t an optimistic fable. We never touched “Land of Promise” or “The American Pageant.”
We read “A People’s History of the United States,” written by Howard Zinn, who died last Wednesday at age 87.
I’m not here to write an obituary but an account of how he changed the way one group of students thought about history.
The sorrow was evident among my former classmates, who memorialized him in Facebook statuses.
After all, “A People’s History” first taught us to question the stories we tell ourselves.
Zinn showed us that our founding fathers were not demigods of the Enlightenment who crafted a perfectly balanced government, which progresses inevitably toward democratic utopia. He told the story through the lens of the losers, the downtrodden and conquered.
Or as one classmate, Zahed Haseeb, put it: “Zinn helped us realize there’s almost always more to a story.”
Critics often attempted to neutralize Zinn by labeling him a radical and not a serious historian. But Zinn never pretended to be fair and balanced. After all, his memoir is titled “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.”
By being so constantly contrarian, Zinn forced us to question even his own history. He was as selective as the storybook texts he overturned but for that he never apologized.
After reading Zinn, much of my class became cynical.
His narrative of slaveholding presidents, imperialist wars, Native American genocide, disenfranchised women and the violent oppression of workers wore heavy on our hearts, the hearts that we had so many times pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.
Zinn constantly reminded us, though, that the heroes of the American story are the nameless, ordinary people who fought for freedom not under the Capitol dome but on the picket lines.
Howard Zinn remained hopeful that change would come, “From the bottom up, from the people themselves.”
And in times like these, shouldn’t we stake hope not in one man but in all the people.
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