Howard Zinn, the people’s historian


On Jan. 27, America lost Howard Zinn. A World War II bombardier, a historian, an author and professor, Zinn challenged the way Americans look at their nation and themselves with the publication of his 1980 book A People’s History of the United States. Though right-wing critics are quick to dismiss his book as “bad history” or label it with the derogatory (in their opinion) term “revisionist history,” Zinn’s work stands on its own as an in-depth look at U.S. history that doesn’t cater to the white, upper-class male perspective.

What was revisionary — even revolutionary — about Zinn’s book was its recasting of history to account for everyone who was not part of the aforementioned demographic — women, the poor, immigrants, workers, people of color. No longer was the history of our nation the history of alleged Great Men. It was the people’s history. It described for us in eye-opening fashion what everyone else was doing while wealthy, white males tried to organize the world to their own advantage.

Zinn helped to shatter once and for all the myth that history is a chain of facts that can be interpreted objectively through a single clear lens. This ought to be self-evident. For most of human history, it has been the victors who’ve interpreted their own actions, casting themselves in the roles of heroes while disregarding and even dehumanizing the vanquished. That’s as true of the United States as it is of ancient Rome.

As Robert the Bruce says in Braveheart, “History is written by those who have hanged heroes.”

History is more complex than our high school textbooks dare to explain. Look at recent events. How will the war in Iraq be interpreted 20, 100 or 300 years from now? Will George W. be lionized for freeing the Iraqi people? Will he be lambasted for manipulating the country into an unnecessary war? Whatever you think, you’re probably wrong.

Zinn reminded us that all human beings have a perspective and that what we had complacently accepted as “fact” in our traditional historical monologue is actually the silencing of most voices in what should be a dialogue.

Now that he’s gone, pundits and historians of all stripes will join in the dialogue about him. Some have decried Zinn’s work as “America bashing.” But Zinn was a champion of ordinary working-class Americans, embracing labor rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and civil rights long before these movements gained traction with the mainstream. How can he bash America and champion Americans at the same time? If he bashed anything, it was the unchallenged assumption that those in power are motivated to act because they care about the rest of us.

Regardless, no one can change the impact he’s had on American society.

“Zinn’s role was to make this great body of work by labor historians, African American historians, women historians accessible and engaging for generations of readers,” Ellen DuBois, a professor of women’s history at UCLA, told the LA Times.

In doing so, he inspired generations of college students, authors and activists, validating the experience of the worker, the single mom, the Latino child of immigrants, the black teenager.

In Boulder, Zinn was almost a household name. From college freshmen to gray-haired flower children, he inspired social action and interaction, opening people’s eyes to perspectives they might never have considered without him.

“I’m grateful for the deciphering of history and the truth-telling about history that Howard Zinn provided for us all,” says Betty Ball, one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. “I wonder who’s going to do that for us now?” That’s a good question. Although Zinn was a darling of the progressive left, he ought to command a place of honor with all Americans. In a nation that prides itself on free speech, he gave us something worthwhile to talk about.

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