Why History From Below Matters: An Interview with Howard Zinn
In this 2005 interview, Zinn explained his approach to writing history: “I am going to write about what I think is important: the social struggles of people, the class structure in the United States, the racial problem, the problem of sexual equality, the problem of war. Those are the things that are going to guide me.”
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was first published in 1980, and has sold more than a million copies to date. The book explores U.S. history from the perspective of the working class, focusing on the struggles of regular people against the interests of the power elite. A People’s History made Zinn one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. He has the rare distinction of both being lauded by the academic left and a serving as a seminal figure for activists.
The recently published companion volume, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, is composed of source material from A People’s History. It consists of a wide variety of pieces from anonymous sources and well-known figures including John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Adrienne Rich and Kurt Vonnegut. “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart calls the book, “Gut-wrenching and never not interesting.”
What was the process of choosing the pieces that you included? Surely there were a lot of great essays and speeches you had to leave out of the book.
Well, first of all, we did not want to choose the kind of documents that you find in traditional documentary history. We didn’t want presidential speeches, Congressional enactments, Supreme Court decisions – we didn’t want the material that normally appears in history books. We wanted the voices of the people who aren’t normally heard. The voices of people who are not famous, who are not in positions of authority, the voices of fugitive slaves, Native Americans, mill workers, women in the textile mills, labor organizers, anti-war protestors, GI’s who are refusing to go to war – dissidents of all kinds. And most or many of these would be sort of obscure people, people not known.
But on the other hand, it would also be people who are well-known but whose views on certain subjects are not well-known. For instance, we choose Helen Keller. Helen Keller is very well known, but she is taught in the schools as a person who was born blind and could not speak or hear and became very successful. But students are not told that Helen Keller was a radical, a socialist, an agitator against war. And so we include a speech by Helen Keller in 1916 called “Strike Against War” which she delivers at Carnegie Hall on the eve of America’s entrance into World War I.
We also have something by Mark Twain. Of course Mark Twain is well known, as a novelist, but most Americans when they learn about Mark Twain do not learn that he was a leader of the Anti-Imperialist League, that he protested against the war in the Philippines, that he denounced Theodore Roosevelt because Roosevelt had congratulated an American general for committing a massacre in the Philippine Islands in 1906.
So, obscure people or famous people giving not well-known viewpoints. We also wanted to include artists, poets, singers and literature. So for instance, we have Langston Hughes, and we have Alice Walker, and we have songs by Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and excerpts from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and from Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a very lively collection.
Any particular pieces in Voices of the People’s History that really stand out to you?
Well there’s Bartolomé de Las Casas blowing the whistle on Columbus. In fact, the book starts off that way. He is somebody not well-known to most Americans. He is a priest who observed what the Spaniards were doing when Columbus and the others arrived in the Bahamas and he wrote several volumes describing the cruelties, kidnappings and mutilations that Columbus and his men engaged in to get the Indians to find gold. I think that is very striking.
What stands out to me also were some of the letters of fugitive slaves who had been entreated by their former masters to return to slavery, believe it or not. The master will write to the escaped slave and say, “Hey, why did you leave? I thought we were treating you well.” We have Rev. Logan, a former slave, a minister in Syracuse, New York, who writes back to his former master and explains why he is not going to return to slavery.
What stands out is the fact the we have the voices of people right down to the present situation, right down to 9/11 and the so-called war on terrorism. We have a letter that was written by the Rodriguez family, who had lost a son in the Twin Towers on 9/11. They write a letter to President Bush saying: “Our son would not want you to retaliate for his death by bombing another country and killing other innocent people and neither do we.” And so we include that letter. And we have a statement by a GI who has been in Iraq and who is not gonna go back. He says: “I refuse to fight in Iraq and to kill people. This is a war for oil.”
So these are some of things, I think, that stand out to me. But they are so many; there are about 200 selections in this book.
Reading the book, I kept thinking how great it would be to have President Bush read it and hear his thoughts on individual pieces. Any person you would like to see pick up the book and hear their thoughts?
We have to find somebody to read it to Bush [Zinn laughs]. He is not going to read it. And the truth is, you know, Bush wouldn’t care. Very often we delude ourselves into thinking that if these people in high places only knew the truth, they would change their policies. No, they wouldn’t. Because the truth is, they don’t care. If their interests were the same as ours, then we might find common ground. But their interests are not the same.
And so, Bush would not be moved by a mother appealing to him not to go to war – he believes in the war. Condoleezza Rice would not be moved by a poem by Langston Hughes even though as a fellow African American she should be listening to him and paying attention. But no, she has her own agenda. So our hope is not that this will be read by the people in power – our hope is that this will be read by the average American who does not know these things and will then organize and act and become part of the social movement that will then force the people in power to change their policies.
Do you think that Voices of a People’s History will reach an audience outside of the normal left crowd? Or that you’re mainly preaching to the converted, people who already read Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, yourself?
Well of course some of the people who buy and read Voices will be people who already sort of believe in the same things we do. Here’s what I’ve found in my experience with A People’s History of the United States. I found that the people who read the book, they may have agreed with me and with my point of view, they may not have. But they would very often give the book to somebody they know, maybe their parents, maybe their friends, maybe somebody who they know who has a different opinion than they do. And I think one of the reasons A Peoples’ History of the United States circulated among so many people is because it did reach people who were not already sure of where they stood on these issues. I’m hopeful that the Voices book will have the same effect.
What has been the reaction of other historians to your work?
Well … my book is a book with a particular point of view. I very clearly and bluntly state what my point of view is. I tell readers that this is not going to be objective. History cannot be objective. History is always a selection out of an infinite amount of material and the selection is according to what the historian thinks is important. And so I am going to write about what I think is important: the social struggles of people, the class structure in the United States, the racial problem, the problem of sexual equality, the problem of war. Those are the things that are going to guide me in writing this.
So yes, it’s a very opinionated book, although I believe it’s one which is buttressed by historical fact. Those historians who are offended by this did not like the book. For instance, Oscar Handlin, a famous Harvard University historian, whose politics are very different than mine, who was a supporter of the Vietnam War, a supporter of President Nixon – he was infuriated by the book. On the other hand, Eric Foner, who teaches history at Columbia University and who is himself a progressive historian wrote a remarkable book on the reconstruction period and wrote it with an understanding of the black point of view of reconstruction. Eric Foner wrote a very favorable review in the New York Times. So historians have reacted to the book differently depending on where they stood politically.
You’re very skeptical of the idea of objectivity. In the introduction to Voices of a People’s History you write, “But there’s no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation. Behind every fact presented to the world by a teacher, writer, anyone, is a judgment.” Can you explain this a bit further?
If a fact is presented to you, it’s presented to you because the historian selected this fact out of a huge number of facts that might be presented to you. And in presenting that fact, he has made a judgment.
For instance, in presenting the facts about Columbus that he kidnapped and killed Indians, well, those are facts. But it required an act of judgment to decide to present those facts. Just as it does to omit them. If they leave out the cruelties of Columbus, they have made a judgment. And so the facts they have selected represent a judgment.
That is also true through any kind of writing of history. The facts that are presented to you in the newspapers are not just facts, they represent what the newspapers think is important. The newspapers today leave out the facts of the Iraqis who have been killed, they leave out the fact that perhaps 100,000 Iraqis have been killed in the present war. If they just give you facts about what the Americans are doing about bringing good things to the Iraqis, they have made a judgment about which facts they want to give and which facts they don’t want to give.
What do you hope the history books will say about Howard Zinn?
Well, of course I hope that more and more historians will accept my ideas and look upon history in the same way and have the same values. And I hope they will say that I had an effect on the teaching of history and the writing of history and that I influenced the people of this generation in their thinking of American society and about the world.
This interview originally appeared on In These Times’ monthly radio show Fire on the Prairie. For an audio version of the interview visit www.fireontheprairie.com.