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Thoughts from Linda:

A People’s History of the United States--1942 to the Present

By Howard Zinn, first published in 1980


As I reflect on this wonderful history book, as told from the perspective of the stakeholders versus the ‘conquerors,’ I am reminded of two of my favorite quotes:


1. “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it…”  Winston Churchill


2. “The Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  … the first line of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go Between


I first heard of this book from a friend and business colleague of mine in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Demetra Anagnostopoulos, in 2006, during some conversation we were having. She went to an AP type of high school there and Ben Affleck’s brother was in her class. 


She mentioned the history text that they used for their American History course, which was this book. 


I taught history for a few years out of college, but somehow had never heard of Howard Zinn’s book.  Soon thereafter, I watched the movie, Good Will Hunting, which starred Matt Damon, Robin Williams, and Ben Affleck. In one very dramatic scene, Matt Damon’s character begins ‘riffing’ and mentions a book that he sees in the office of Robin Williams’ character. That book was Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History. 


So, I thought I’d better check this out.


It is a true jewel and has completely opened my eyes to American history in a whole new way. 


For example, about Columbus: “…the information that Columbus wanted most (from the Arawaks in Hispaniola) was ‘where is the gold?’ He had persuaded the king and queen of Spain to finance an expedition to the lands, the wealth, he expected would be on the other side of the Atlantic--the Indies and Asia, gold and spices. For like other informed people of his time, he knew the world was round and he could sail west in order to the to the Far East…In return for bringing back gold and spices, they promised him 10% of the profits, governorship over new-found lands and the fame that would go with the new title:  Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”


He goes on…” Columbus was lucky.  (the world was much larger than he had calculated) He would have been doomed by that great expanse of sea…One-fourth of the way ‘there’ he came upon an unknown, uncharted land that lay between Europe and Asia…the Americas.” 


Here is one of the details, giving us an additional peek into the character of Columbus, as it pertains to one of his sailors, Rodrigo. After seeing signs of land, “on October 12th, a sailor called Rodrigo saw the early morning moon shining on white sands, and cried out. It was an island in the Bahamas, The Caribbean Sea. The first man to sight land was supposed to get a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life, but Rodrigo never got it. Columbus claimed he had seen a light the evening before. So, Columbus got the reward.”


And, so it goes.


Particularly relevant today is Chapter 2:  Drawing the Color Line, which addresses the long issue of racial relationships between black and white in the United States. Zinn offers a perspective from several contemporary early colony journals and other historians as he tells the story of the first slave ship to arrive in Jamestown in 1619, with 20 slaves on board. He describes the dire situation of those settlers and offers a hypothesis as to why they would be willing/eager to adopt a paradigm of slavery versus indentured servitude, for example, so early on in the history of the colony. 


He suggests that the colonists in Jamestown, after several years of miserable existence, exhibited …” a kind of frustrated rage at their own ineptitude, at the Indian superiority at taking care of themselves, that made the Virginians especially ready to become the master of slaves. He quotes Edmund Morgan in the book American Slavery, American Freedom: “If you were a colonist, you knew that your technology was superior to the Indians.’ You knew that you were civilized, and they were savages…But your superior technology had proved insufficient to extract anything. The Indians, keeping to themselves, laughed at your superior methods and lived from the land more abundantly and with less labor than you did…And when your own people started deserting in order to live with them, it was too much…So you killed the Indians, tortured them, burned their villages, burned their cornfields. It proved your superiority, in spite of your failures. And you gave similar treatment to any of your people who succumbed to their savage ways of life. But, you still did not grow much corn…”


And thus, “black slaves were the answer.”


Zinn goes on to provide a very logical framework for the early spread of the concept of slavery and provides many insights which could be very useful to us today. For example, he offers, “there is an enormous difference between a feeling of racial strangeness, perhaps fear, and the mass enslavement of millions of black people that took place in the Americas.” 


“The transition from one to the other cannot be explained easily by ‘natural’ tendencies. It is not hard to understand as the outcome of historical conditions. Slavery grew as the plantation system grew.” The number of whites arriving in the colonies was just not sufficient, he notes, to meet the needs. By 1700 in Virginia, there were 6,000 slaves (1/12th of the population) and just 60 years later, there were 170,000 (50% of the population.) 


He describes, in horrid detail, the process of enslavement and transport and implementation of the American tragedy of slavery.  This chapter should be read by every American today. 


 The book is filled with 25 chapters, each tackling a different topic, ending with the election of 2000 and the ‘War on Terrorism.’ From the very first chapter on Columbus, entitled ‘Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,’ it is clear that he is telling a side of the story that few students have heard before. 


It is time for the reality of the American experience to be explored and both celebrated as well as mourned. For us and for future generations, we do need to recognize that as L.P. Hartley said, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I hope we commit as educators, parents and grandparents, to tackling the issues that are holding us back from moving into the future with eyes wide open. We’re named homo sapiens, from the Latin, meaning man of wisdom. Let’s all commit to earning that title.

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