Howard Zinn, progressive historian and activist,
died on Wed., Jan. 27, 2010. I am greatly saddened
by this news. He was a major inspiration to me and
a key influence early in my life.
You may know that I currently teach graphic design at Lasell College, in Newton. What you may not know is that I first began teaching in the 1980s, at an alternative high school in Watertown called “EEE”, part of EDCO (Educational Collaborative). The subjects that I taught included history. Howard Zinn’s iconic book, A People’s History of the United States, had just recently been published in 1980. It wasn’t a common choice for history textbooks, but there was no question for me that I would use it to teach U.S. History, a required class for Massachusetts students at that time.
On the first day of class, I would hand out a traditional history textbook to students, the kind that I had to read as a high school student. I would ask them to turn to a specific page and read aloud a specific paragraph, which happened to contain a racist remark by one of the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. After a brief discussion of the students’ reaction to the reading, I would announce, “OK, that’s all we’ll need these books for. Close them and make a pile of them on the floor in the corner.” Zinn’s book was then distributed to the class and our interpretation of history was changed forever.
A People’s History of the United States presented the American experience in an entirely new way: from the perspective of the people rather than the elite. My copy of it is so worn that its binding is loose. But there’s no way I would replace it with a new one and let go of all the markings and notations in my old book. It influenced the way I taught history. For instance, I would begin the semester with students researching their own personal history. We’d move backwards in time from the present to the past, so that history in general became more meaningful to them.
Zinn has written several other books, of course, and you would be wise to check them out. In his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), Zinn wrote,
“From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
We in Massachusetts were lucky: Zinn was a local resident and would often appear at rallies, actions, and events. We heard him speak on many occasions, always with an articulate, informed voice and the warmth and humility of your next-door neighbor.
There are many wonderful tributes to him. I encourage you to read some of them and know a little piece of a great man. I’ve listed 3 below that I found particularly moving:
Howard Zinn (1922-2010): A Tribute to the Legendary Historian with Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein and Anthony Arnove
This excellent tribute has a video component.
Howard Zinn, historian who challenged status quo, dies at 87
Boston Globe local breaking news coverage
Howard Zinn’s website http://howardzinn.org/default/