Howard Zinn, popular historian, died last week before I had a chance to finish his volume, A People’s History of the United States, 1492 – Present. I’ve been reading it on and off for the past several years, packing it along in my beach bag or my carry-on to keep me company on plane trips to visit my grandparents.
I first heard of Zinn while watching the movie, “Good Will Hunting.” Matt Damon’s character tells his psychiatrist that Zinn’s book would knock him on his ass. The scene shown above is one of my favorites: Damon tries to impress a pretty Harvard co-ed, a battle of wits ensues, and Damon and Ben Affleck go on to win Oscars. I looked Zinn up after that. Maybe my dusty screenplay just needed a few Howard Zinn references to pump some life into it! None of his quotes fit into my story of a new college graduate pretending to be the daughter of a famous singer in order to advance her career. But Zinn’s work as a professor at Spellman’s all black women’s college, with the organization SNCC, and as mentor to Alice Walker fit my worldview. He was someone I needed to read.
So far, I’m up to the chapter, “Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom.” I can’t seem to get past a letter from President Lincoln to Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune which begins,
“Dear Sir:…I have not meant to leave any one in doubt…My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery.” Never read that about Lincoln in American history in high school.
Zinn’s concise and engaging style told history from the perspective of the everyman: blacks and women, immigrants and factory workers, Native Americans and the poor. Like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Classic Slave Narratives introduced to me in college, Zinn’s treatise let me imagine history from the place of my people, not just their oppressors. It encouraged me to tell my own history.
Who else’s perspective do you think still needs telling in American history?