Howard Zinn’s 100th birthday celebration was on August 24th. Even though he passed away in 2010, I decided to do a session to find out how he is doing and ask him a few questions.
As one admirer wrote, Zinn was “a brilliant practitioner of both history and activism and activism to change history.” He was also a World War II veteran turned pacifist, a working man turned college professor, and a historian who joined the front lines of the Civil Rights movement.
Connecticut college students have heard Howard Zinn lecture and many have read his history books, rich in stories we haven’t heard about, where workers, suffragettes, and the poor take center stage. He is still the most popular historian in this country. And it’s the No. 1 target of the forces that really want us to forget our troubled past.
You’ve heard the controversy over critical race theory, or what critics simply call CRT (without bothering to know what it is). Not surprisingly, Zinn’s legacy is being attacked by the same forces. All this hateful backsliding is being promoted, in bad faith, by right-wing politicians, boards of education, and white supremacists.
Looking back at the American past with a critical eye (warts and all) is difficult but necessary. But labeling it a “woke” practice makes it a scapegoat for ordinary people looking to discover why life today seems so uncertain.
So I thought: What would Howard Zinn say about 2022? A séance, reaching into the spirit world, can help clear things up. Here is a transcript of my encounter*:
howard are you there can you hear me OK, first I want to know: when students are taught real US history in school, do you want white kids to be ashamed of who they are?
My point is not to mourn the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, thrown into the past, drain our moral energy for the present. And the lines aren’t always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short term (and so far, human history has consisted of only short runs), victims, themselves desperate and tainted by the culture that oppresses them, confront other victims.
That’s pretty heavy. So you are saying that we have to examine both the good and the bad of historical facts? But there has been so much oppression: the theft of indigenous people lands of the peoples, brutal slavery, the subjugation of women, endless wars…
I do not want to invent victories for popular movements. But to think that historical writing should aim to simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat.
I think we all agree that we want the future to be better than the past: more generous, more equitable, more humane. But how does learning our own history help us do this?
If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, I believe it should emphasize new possibilities by revealing those hidden episodes of the past when, even in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join, now and then to win. Therefore, it is important not to reject the difficult past with wholesale censorship of books and ideas. In fact, we might find hopeful lessons in the struggles that ordinary people, even our own families, went through!
I guess, or maybe I just hope, that our future can be found in the fleeting moments of compassion of the past rather than its solid centuries of war. “Fleeing Moments of Compassion.” I like. Do you have any final words for us?Howard? Howard? I guess he’s gone.
I understand. I will go back and read his books. And by the way, other works like The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones. The Day of Indigenous Peoples is coming up on October 10. I want to visit the site of the old Christopher Columbus statue, removed in 2020 by the city of Hartford. I think I’ll ask him what all the fuss is about.
(* I don’t believe in the sessions; I don’t know what Howard Zinn thought of them. His answers here are from his masterpiece, A People’s History of the United States.)
Steve Thornton of Hartford writes for ShoeleatherHistoryProject.com.