Thursday, January 28, 2010

RIP Howard Zinn

I first read A People's History of the United States in late 2001. If ever there was an odd time to read this book it was the unsettling period of post 9/11. Reading this book had a profound effect on me. It re-awakened a passion for American history in me that had been dormant for some time. It taught me that history is open to interpretation and re-evaluation. Finally, it opened my eyes to the many blemishes of social injustice (not just slavery and Jim Crow) that have shaped the United States of America. If it had not been for Howard Zinn and “A People’s History…,” I surely would not be pursuing what I know now to be my calling in life (an historian). If it had not been for Dr. Zinn, I wonder if I might have gotten caught up in the vengeful bloodlust and mindless, racist nationalism that characterized the post 9/11 period. Certainly I did not support the aims of the Taliban or Al Qaeda (to quote former comedy writer and media critic Dennis Perrin, “We were attacked by a group just as venal and superstitious as ourselves.”), but I did take care to analyze information coming to me from the major media outlets and they all fit into a narrative. My aim here is not to get into what that narrative was or whether I agreed with it. The point I am trying to make is that right at that weird and horrifying moment on September 11, 2001, I was being introduced to the concept of the counter-narrative. Some people are the subjects of history and others are the objects. Students of American history must know about Thomas Jefferson and should be interested in his eloquence during the founding of the Republic. But, they should also be interested in learning about his slaves and his true feelings about the peculiar institution. The accomplishments of the Woodrow Wilson administration in carrying the U.S. through World War I are fairly well-known, but it is definitely less well-known that the Democratic President hosted a private screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in the White House and praised the film for its “historical accuracy”. The United States was built by people of every level of economic means, social prestige, and educational achievement. Sadly, most people with as much as a passing interest in U.S. history are only familiar with the business and accomplishments of the Chief Executive. Howard Zinn reminded us that in a nation of hundreds of millions from every corner of the globe that version of history is too narrow. My thoughts and sympathies are with his family, friends, and students today. May he rest in peace.

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