In the Spring 2004 issue of Dissent, Georgetown historian Michael Kazin savaged Howard Zinn’s seminal work, A People’s History of the United States, castigating it, among many other barbs, as a “polemic disguised as history.” One of the few concessions Kazin made was his approval of Zinn punctuating “his narrative with hundreds of quotes from slaves and Populists, anonymous wage-earners and … articulate radicals.”
Whether intended or not, Zinn’s latest work (co-edited with Anthony Arnove), Voices of a People’s History of the United States, serves as a useful response to Kazin’s critique. Comprised of more than 200 source documents, Voices is a vast anthology that tells heartbreaking and uplifting stories of American history. Kazin will be hard-pressed to charge Zinn with politicizing the intelligence here; the volume offers only Zinn’s sparse introductions to each piece, letting the actors and their words speak for themselves.
When choosing pieces for the volume, Zinn’s intention was to avoid the typical source material for documentary history. “We didn’t want presidential speeches, congressional enactments, Supreme Court decisions,” he says. True to form, Voices focuses on pieces by mostly unknown figures.
The volume is arranged chronologically, and starts with the figure who has probably suffered the biggest fall from grace in the minds of the American public: Christopher Columbus. One of the few pieces from a well-known historical figure, “The Diario of Christopher Columbus (October 11-15, 1492)” is unlikely to be included in other volumes of American history, because, well, Columbus serves up a pretty unflattering portrait of himself. The rest of the first chapter consists of accounts from the period that paint an even bleaker view of Columbus by Bártolome de Las Casas, a contemporary who traveled with Columbus.
At more than 600 pages, Zinn and Arnove certainly didn’t intend for the volume to be consumed in one or two sittings, but “Slavery and Defiance” – with its excruciating first-hand accounts of the peculiarly pernicious institution – is particularly likely to make even the most cynical readers pause to collect themselves. Case in point, this letter by the fugitive slave Jermain Wesley Loguen to his former master, Sarah Logue: “You say that you have offers to buy me, and that you shall sell me if I do not send you $1,000, and in the same breath, you say, ‘You know we raised you as we did our own children.’ Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping post?”
But amidst the nightmares from which we are still trying to awake, Zinn and Arnove offer moments of hope and triumph; after all, there have been quite a few successful mass movements in our county’s past. The theme that emerges is that of individuals struggling against much larger forces, sometimes alone, sometimes as part of larger mass movements, knowing that whether they succeed or not, they have no choice but to fight.
“The things we take for granted now, part of the American way of life, these were revolutionary ideas when we began to demand them in the thirties,” writes Rose Chernin in her essay “Organizing the Unemployed in the Bronx in the 1930s.” Chernin details the process of organizing rent strikes and the physical confrontations that would take place during evictions. “Sometimes, they’d get so disgusted with all this fighting and hollering they’d take the furniture from the apartment but leave it on the landing. … Then we’d put the furniture back into the apartment. We’d put a new lock on the door and the landlord would have to get a new eviction notice.” As with many struggles of the time, Chernin and other organizers ultimately won.
The volume concludes with “Bush II and the ‘War on Terror.’” How textbooks will cover the U.S. response to 9/11 is still undecided. But one doubts that “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman’s speech “Independent Media in a Time of War” will be on the syllabus. “MSNBC and NBC, as well as Fox, tilting their coverage, taking the name of what the Pentagon calls the invasion of Iraq: ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ … you have to ask this: If this were state media, how would it be any different?”
With things seemingly getting worse by the day under the Bush administration, Voices of a People’s History is a welcome reminder that our struggle is larger and longer than one president, or one war, and that speaking out in dissent has a long and glorious history.