Thursday, July 5, 2007

Zinn on the People's History for Children

Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States is a classic. If someone were to ask me for a book to help them understand America, this would be the book I would recommend without hesitation. I wish that one of my teachers had told me about it when I was in high school. I wish that someone had told me about it in college, or even let me know that Zinn was there with me at Boston University (maybe it may have made my time at that God forsaken school more tolerable.)

Zinn is a hero of mine. I got to speak with him once and was bold enough to ask him if he would consider writing "A People's History of the Caribbean." He said that since it is not his specialty, he probably wouldn't. Too bad. I would love to read a book like that.

All this is to give context to my reaction to reading a letter to the editor by Howard Zinn in the July 1, 2007 New York Times Book Review. His more recent books, "A Young People's History of the United States: Volume 1 and Volume 2" was reviewed by Walter Kirn in the June 17 issue of the Review. Zinn's response to the review was measured but decidedly upfront about Kirn's lack of understanding of the value of looking at history through the "People's" point of view.

Kirn is irritated because his "truth" is not mine. His truths — built around veneration of the "great men" of the past: the political leaders, the enterprising industrialists — add up to exactly the simplistic history fed to young people over their generations, which my book tries to replace.

Walter Kirn's review was amazingly cynical. The entire piece was written in a long, tired, ironic tone. It is also troubling to find Kirn criticising Zinn for criticising Columbus for facts "supported by Columbus's own account." Kirn seems to be upset that Zinn points out that history can be "shaped" by how the historian picks and chooses the facts. To any educated person this is, as Zinn says, "common sense."

I was told as a child to admire Columbus, just as my mother was told. “He was the great man who discovered our country of Jamaica and we should honor his memory.” I feel like a fool now that I know the truth. He was a killer and a brute. (And how do you discover a place that is already occupied by a civilization of people?) I feel angry that I and my ancestors were manipulated into believing half-truths. I am grateful to Zinn for telling a different point of view of history. I gives me a sense of pride in how my people have contributed to the history of the world. I understand now that people who were enslaved were not just passive participants in the events of their time, but actives seekers of their own freedom. It gives me courage to try to contribute in my own way to the history of the world.

It seems that throughout my education my mind was guided away from understanding any fact that may make me think, or make me angry, or God forbid, make me question. And I was educated in one of the most "liberal" cities in this country, Cambridge, MA. It is the job of an educational system to help guide a young person's education. That includes pointing young minds to alternative books that can help them get a wider view of the world so they can go out into the world with the understanding that they can participate in this democracy, too.

Not doing this causes resentment among the young. They are, as I was, not stupid. They have the "feeling" that something is being held back. They sense that their teachers are not telling them everything. I, like them, didn't know what to do about it. It is easy to see why the young have been openly displaying disrespect towards a system that disrespects them. The young want the truth. They need the truth. They need to know that they too have the ability to affect the world and can forge their own futures.

This is the point of Zinn's work: people have power to determine their own destiny. "Great White Men" do not have all the right answers and we, the people, can — and have — affect history, too.


iyan and egusi soup said...

a very thoughtful post, jenn. and fascinating that zinn actually responded to the review--i admire this sort of boldness; standing one's truth, no matter the criticism.

jenn said...

If it's boldness you like, you'll love Zinn. I think he's great.

iyan and egusi soup said...

by the way, jenn, i like the new layout of the blog--with the books on the left. and i like how you categorize them--e.g. 'books that scare me...' this feels very "booksy"!

jenn said...

"booksy"... I like this word! I will remember it. Thanks for the comments on the site. I'm using's new Bookshelf Widgets on the sidebar. Cool!

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