Thursday, January 28, 2010

RIP Howard Zinn, The People's Champion

I awoke into this cold grey morning, still waiting for the promised snow, opened headlines on RSN (Reader Supported News) only to discover that one of my major heroes, Howard Zinn, died last night. Zinn's 1980 A People's History of the United States, taught me, while I was still young enough for it to be a big influence, that the garbled version of American history the basketball coach/history teacher in my high school, and later the even more garbled class in which I made my only college D grade had left out large elements of the Whole Story. His "alternative" recounting of our often less-than-glorious past, is
an attempt to balance the scales by writing about the parts of US history that aren't often covered in depth. It focuses particularly on the effects of government policy on the poor, women, and non-whites throughout US history, documents labor movements and equality movements in more depth than one normally sees, and points out the mixed and disappointing records of US cultural heroes. It is, in other words, an attack on assumptions and accepted wisdom about the heroes and important events in history, and on the stories we tell ourselves as a culture (from Russ Albery's Review of A People's History).

My impulse as even a very young woman (who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and the VietNam War and was hugely influenced by the leftist politics of that era) was to identify with progressive, even radical, politics. Reading Zinn's History helped me continue in that direction as I grew older, reinforcing ideas that had previously been mostly emotional, rather than intellectual. When I lived outside Boston in the eighties, Zinn was often a speaker at local events and gatherings, and I feel privileged to have heard him speak in Cambridge and Boston several times. I heard him speak most recently last month on Bill Moyers Journal, as feisty and charming as ever. His appearance on Moyers was to discuss and showcase the video, Let the People Speak, made from his History, which premiered on the History Channel two nights after the Moyers show. News of his death is all over progressive and news sites on the Internet, I've read the LA Times obit and the Boston Globe's, but there are many more.

We have lost one of our most powerful progressive voices, one that spoke for the forgotten, the downtrodden, the oppressed; that debunked the glorified, the mythologized leaders of our history. But he influenced so many people in his years as a teacher, a writer, a speaker, that his work will live on. In reading his obituaries I was interested to learn that his first teaching gig was at Spelman College in Atlanta, where Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman were among his students. I know that many less-famous students are among those who have passed The People's History on to their children, their students. His students and followers will continue his work. But on this bleak grey day of windborne sleet, I mourn our loss. If you don't know Howard Zinn, check A People's History of the United States out of your public library this afternoon, read it in memoriam. Although I've read it several times, I think I'm going to do just that this weekend. (Crossposted from The Blue Voice)


JACKIE said...

I blew it and missed The People Speak when it was on in December. Figured what the heck, the History Channel runs everything into the ground. Right? WRONG. I mean how many times have they shown the Seven Signs of the Apocolypse and similar drivel?

Hasn't been on since and after reading the article at your link, I'm not surprised. The DVD will be out in February though.

Howard you will be missed.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I love Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman, Jane Hamscher is because I feel they are carrying on from those like Howard Zinn into the next generation.
Losing Zinn and in the spring we will lose Bill Moyer, at least as a regular voice in the media, are surely great loses to the progressive voice, but there are other up and comers, and I've listed some.
I long felt the "Peoples History.." should be the history textbook taught, just as I now think Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" should be the text taught on economic policy.
Thanks for this post and getting the attention on this man's great work out there.