The Journey with Jesus: Book Notes
Reviews By Dan Clendenin
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 1492–Present (New York: HarperCollins, 1980, 2003), 729pp.
Who gets to write history, and in so doing shape the myths and narratives by which we live? Most history is written "from above," that is, about presidents, generals, their wars, peace treaties, and the like. The radical historian Howard Zinn (1922–2010) turns this perspective upside down. He reads history from "below," from the perspective of a coal miner, a black slave, or a Vietnamese rice farmer. History looks very different for a woman, who could not vote, own property, pursue education, or advance in employment, than for George Washington, the richest man in America in his day.
Zinn grew up in the slums of Brooklyn, the son of two immigrant factory workers. After high school he worked for three years in the shipyards. After serving in the Air Force, he completed his doctorate in history at Columbia University. From 1956–1963 he taught at Spelman College, the first historically black female institution of higher education; and then from 1964 until 1988 he was a professor of political science at Boston University. Among his more than thirty books, A People's History is Zinn's best known work, having sold more than a million copies; it typifies his "radical analysis of the structures of power [that] formed the basis of his teaching, writing, and activism" in movements for peace and justice.
Zinn wrote A People's History, he says, "to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance" (p. 686), especially as those are expressed in the marriage of predatory capitalism, permanent militarism, government power, and unjust laws. It's "extremely important," he says, that citizens develop independent, critical judgment and learn a different sort of history, one that will "make them skeptical of what they hear from authority" and that will foster rather than suppress a "permanent adversarial culture." Throughout his book Zinn highlights the resisters and revolutionaries, some famous but many unknown, who did just this. Despite government control and corporate power that urge conformity to their own narratives, Zinn recovers the many lost stories that represent the "bubbling of change under the surface of obedience."