Adventures in Feministory: Howard Zinn, American Historian and Activist
Writing history is a radical act. I’m going to say it again. Writing history is a radical act. The process by which historians choose to deify, demonize, or emulate individuals and events is a malleable and contentious undertaking. As I’m sure you savvy readers out there know—with this retelling comes power. Sure, narratives can be retold, historical ‘facts’ reformulated, and legacies reclaimed. But whose voices get heard? Which versions get told? Who gets remembered and why? (For far too long ‘our’ Nation’s history consisted overwhelmingly of the male, pale, and stale variety.)
These questions went largely unexplored outside of the academy until 1980 with the publishing of A People’s History of the United States. With this retelling, Howard Zinn’s populist account of history seized the imagination of a generation, myself included. Prior to reading Zinn, in high school history class, I always noticed the same faces covering page after page (dead white men, dead white men, dead white men!). Yet, I never paused to consider that these ‘facts’ represented choices made by my textbook’s author. Then I read Zinn.
Suddenly, my understanding of history changed overnight. Gone were the “top down” tales of Presidents, Generals, robber barons and elites (a.k.a. slave holders?). Instead I found “bottom up” accounts of dockworkers, Molly Maguires, ‘hellraising women,’ black activists, and revolutionaries. Slowly my former heroes were replaced with heroines: Goodbye Lincoln and Jefferson. Hello Mother Jones, Helen Keller, and Fannie Lou Hamer. After reading Zinn, history no longer was static, sanitized, and apolitical, instead it was laden with struggle, strife, and ambiguity. (Just like in real life). I was hooked, and with over one million copies sold, clearly I was not alone.
Born Augugst 24, 1922, into a working class Jewish family, Howard Zinn grew up in New York City. Known as “the People’s Historian” Zinn saw himself not only as a professor and historian, but more importantly, as a cultural critic. He challenged the outdated practice of blindly canonizing WASPs and took sharp criticism for finding fault with ‘heroes’ such as Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Andrew Jackson. In contrast, Zinn preferred to highlight the achievements of other groups: women, people of color, radicals, laborers, gays and lesbians, and many other folks whose contributions had been historically minimized, marginalized, and overshadowed.
Unlike other professors, Zinn was not content with writing history from the confines of an ivory tower; instead he took part in making it. In 1952, Howard and Roslyn (his wife and editor) moved to Atlanta, Georgia to accept a position at Spelman, the historically black women’s college. There, Zinn mentored students such as Alice Walker, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Marian Wright Edelman. Like so many of his heroes and heroines before him, Frederick Douglass, Emma Goldman, Sojourner Truth, Zinn was not afraid to take unpopular stances. Believing that "dissent is the highest form of patriotism" Howard took part in civil rights protests, tense sit-ins, and demonstrations against racial segregation with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In doing so, he successfully managed to do what so few academics have—bridge the immense chasm between activism and academia. And, he eventually paid a high price for it when he was fired from Spelman College. (Ironically the college recently presented him an honorary degree).
Howard’s early involvement in, and contributions to, the anti-war movement and multiple other social justice movements are too numerous to list. For 87 years, Zinn tirelessly fought for justice, he questioned historical ‘facts,’ restored legacies, refashioned narratives and lived by the civically engaged principles he documented. On January 27, 2010, the same day President Obama gave his State of the Union Address, Howard Zinn died of a heart attack.
That night, as I watched the Address, I thought of Howard Zinn. After all, Zinn delivered a message of hope long before Obama crafted it into an effective campaign slogan. During difficult times, Howard provided historical justifications not only for critical engagement but for optimism and idealism: The Civil Rights Movement, The Women’s Movement, the eight-hour-day, the end of apartheid in South Africa—he popularized these movements to show readers that real change is rarely “top down.” Instead, these fierce struggles for justice were won by everyday people becoming engaged in the streets, in the schoolrooms, in unions, and around the kitchen table (and now even in the blogosphere). Howard Zinn’s life work historically illustrated that that no matter who we are, or how impossible the odds, change can and will happen when ordinary people rise up and demand justice.
Thank you Howard Zinn for democratizing history—you will be missed.
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