Erica Snowlake

Praising Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States, and The People Speak 

By Erica Snowlake

It is good to recall Ms. Thelma Trotty, the first teacher who blew (enlightened) my mind. She taught high school history in the late seventies in upstate New York from her unique perspective as a native Iroquois and a gay women’s rights advocate. Condemning the recorded history of our textbooks “propaganda” she initiated the dissemination and discussion of versions of the past which didn’t necessarily serve “liberty and justice for all”. Opening our eyes to the suffering of the oppressed, and the ongoing struggle for equality in our society, she encouraged independent thought and critical analysis with the liberating anarchist mantra “Question Authority!” infusing our hearts with yearning for the dignified community of all beings in solidarity. Radical compassion! I began to shed (in layers) the skin of a privileged young white woman.

In 1980 Professor Emeritus Howard Zinn published The People’s History of the United States, encouraged by his wife Roslyn to spread to an ever-widening audience the lectures he gave students at Boston University. The book re-tells American history from the point of view of “the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have”; the brave souls who have eloquently spoken out and organized resistance against genocide, slavery, war, poverty, and racial and gender inequality, while in the midsts of enduring it, often having sacrificed their very lives for it. These voices of our ancestors; Native Americans, slaves, soldiers, war dissenters, union organizers, immigrant laborers, peace marchers, yippies, feminists, resonate louder than ever today, reminding us democracy only originates and prospers by and for the people who serve to vigilantly nurture and uphold it.

Howard Zinn died in January, leaving us the inspiring legacy of his life as an educator, prolific writer, historian, playwright, social activist, remorseful WWII bombardier, and compassionate human being. He was instrumental in supporting the non-violent actions of students at Atlanta’s Spelman College in fighting segregation, including the writer and poet Alice Walker. Arrested more than half a dozen times for civil disobediance, it is rumored on his last day at BU, 100 students enthusiastically accepted Zinn’s invitation to join him in a picket line. He did not shy from telling the truth of the genocidal depredation of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt, or the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. His last piece was a critical expose urging President Obama to follow the policies of Dr. Martin Luther King. It is no surprise those who call him friend include Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier.

The People’s History of the United States has now been read by over two million people! I recently discovered the graphic adaptation entitled A People’s History of American Empire, which opens with the events of 9-11 and explores U.S. imperialism from Wounded Knee to Viet Nam, the Iran-Contra scandal to the invasion of Iraq. It chronicles Mr. Zinn’s own story, the son of poor Jewish immigrants growing up in Brooklyn tenements.

A few months ago, the History Channel aired a two-hour spoken word and musical performance based on Voices of a People’s History of the United States. “The People Speak”, narrated and co-directed by Howard Zinn with Arnold Arnove, features readings from live performances at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theater and Malibu’s Performing Arts Center by a variety of acclaimed actors and musicians, bringing to life the valiant speeches, poetry, dying words, and shining integrity of those throughout history who refuse to be compromised by greed, privilege, and power. Performers channel the immortal words of Chief Joseph, Frederick Douglas, Mark Twain, Genora Dollinger, Langston Hughes, Woody Guthrie, Caesar Chavez, Marion Wright Edelman, and dozens of jes’ plain ol’ regular folk with guts.

In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Howard Zinn summed up our chances for a universal peaceful co-existence: “If you want to end terrorism, you have to stop being terrorists, which is what war is.” For all his insight into history’s cruelties, he always held hope, reminding us human history is equally filled with acts of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness. In his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral from a Moving Train, he promises “If we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is a succession of presents, and to live now as we think humans should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself, a marvelous victory.”

Thank-you Howard and Roslyn Zinn, you are in all hearts that are dreaming for freedom.