Legendary historian, radical activist and playwright Howard Zinn died yesterday at 87.
I had just been thinking about him yesterday as I read the final piece he had written for publication-an assessment in The Nation of Barack Obama’s first year as president, a year about which Zinn wrote that he had been “searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama’s rhetoric; I don’t see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies.”
It was vintage Zinn: active and uncompromising about his views until the very end of his remarkably productive life.
Some of his many critics said his scholarship was shoddy, and it was true both that he did not seem to be a big fan of the footnote and that one could read the entire A People’s History of the United States without learning the names of a quarter, if not half, of our presidents.
That wasn’t really the point with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s former neighbor and friend, though.
The former World War II bombardier summed up his philosophy in the title of his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.
Zinn was always for the underdog, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the voiceless.
The first chapter of A People’s History, about the decidedly ruinous encounter between Columbus and the Arawaks, is a classic. In the early stages of the book, Zinn explains his purpose to tell history from the perspective of the vanquished, rather than the victor.
Zinn did a lot more than write.
He put his body on the line countless times in the struggle for justice, participating and speaking at literally thousands of demonstrations during the civil rights, Vietnam and Gulf War eras, among many causes. It wasn’t for nothing that former student Alice Walker dedicated a section of one of her poetry collections to him. Love or loath him, you had to admit that the man acted on his beliefs for more than six decades.
One of the many stories that have circulated about him since his death involves his going straight from his final lecture at Boston University to a picket line.
I had the great fortune to hear Zinn teach during that final semester as dear friend Paul D’Angelo was a student in the class and invited me to attend.
Beyond the shock of grey hair and the tall, lean body, I was surprised at how genial Zinn was. For him, teaching was both art and performance, and he clearly relished verbal sparring with students who disagreed with him far more than fawning affirmations of his views.
“Look at me,” he said, at one point. “A cowering wreck of a human being.”
In truth, he was anything but that.
Zinn kept going so long-after leaving BU, site of epic battles with former president John Silber, he kept right on lecturing, writing, traveling and agitating-that you almost started to wonder if he would last forever.
He didn’t, of course, and we are the poorer for his departure, even as we celebrate his long and worthy life lived.
A People’s History is by far the most well-known of Zinn’s books, and for those looking to learn more from him, I would also recommend SNCC: The New Abolitionists, his account of having worked with and advised many of the students during their emergence in the early 60s, Disobedience and Democracy, in which he argues for the strategic use of violence against property and against accepting the legal consequences of civil disobedience, and his memoir, a book where he recounts his journey.
He will be missed, of course, and, fortunately, he has left a rich legacy behind.
COLUMBUS DAY POST:
Columbus Day may mean a day off from work for many Americans, but for many native peoples, it’s a day of mourning.
The Wall Street Journal writes that 22 states have scrapped plans to celebrate the day. People who want to learn more about some of the reasons behind these decisions should read controversial historian Howard Zinn’s landmark book, A People’s History of the United States,
Zinn’s opens the book with a chapter about Columbus and the genocide of the Arawak people. Toward the chapter’s end, Zinn writes about the importance of considering history not just from the perspective of the victors, but of seeking for, and listening to, the voices of the vanquished.
The sourcing throughout the book is sloppy at best, and readers can easily leave entire sections of the book not knowing who the presidents were during several eras of American history. Still, on this day, when much of the nation pauses to honor the Genoan who set out for India and landed on the Dominican Republic, we would do well at least to consider the consequences of Columbus’ landing for the people whom he and his crew met there.