Friday, January 29, 2010


I decided, on a whim, to take Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States with me to Rwanda a few years ago, and spent the better part of an afternoon on Lake Kivu reading this strange tale that I had never heard before, one of socialists during World War One, of the pacifists during World War Two, of the Native Americans during the colonial period. Chapter after chapter spoke to me of subaltern histories that my traditional history books hadn't really told me of. And what made this book revolutionary was that it was written in 1981, long before it was vogue to tell 'alternate histories'. Whole worlds opened up for me, worlds not only of other histories, but of how to tell other stories, how to see other worlds with other hopes and other aspirations.

As far as intellectual elitists go, Zinn was one with the goods. He was around at Spelman College during the Civil Rights movment, sponsoring the SNCC group on campus, and mentoring a little known woman named Alice Walker. He was fired from Spelman in 1963 for protest involvment around the Vietnam War, when he moved up to Boston. One of the collaborators with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Zinn continued his activism right up until his death.

Though probably not as well known around the Popcorn Bag as Mr. Salinger, Howard Zinn was for me the model of an academic who spoke his heart. I go back and forth about this: on the one hand, as anyone who's been around the academy knows, the academy is a pretty safe place to throw stones from. Once you gain some critical mass, intellectually speaking, even the most obnoxious voices can get difficult to dislodge. The man was not without his detractors, calling him "revisionist" in the pejorative sense of the world. My response to that is that we read the worlds we learn to see, and Zinn was in the business of helping us see a totally different one.

I won't go all the way and say that I agree with Zinn on everything; his Marxism gets obnoxious; he was devoutly materialist in many of his writings. And on that, he and I must part ways. But what I celebrated about Zinn's work was the manner in which he, as one of the ivory tower, turned his work not into an internal conversation with the academy, but as a vehicle for re-thinking the world. That world he helped rethink is poorer for his passing.


the hamster said...

this is wonderful. i know nothing of the man, except that you and jesse are fans. now there's a better grasp, clearer context to pick the man up and know in which direction i'm following stones.

i like the image of you in rwanda, sitting by a lake and reading a history of america. that's an odd image, but i remember in china finally learning so many things about america simply by having the rare vantage point of looking at it from the outside. i too became a student of america once i left her.

good post, myles. we need to keep our eyes open for such celebratory opportunities. see you tomorrow in calvert.

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