Important book by historian and (unsurprisingly) activist, Howard Zinn. First published in 1980, this book has sold over 800,000 copies. Not only is this remarkable for what is, essentially a history textbook, but a book that flies in the face of most textbooks used in schools and institutions in the United States.
Zinn sees what is taught as history to be a matter of "facts" about the great men and groups (the "idea of saviors" as he calls it), while leaving out the stories of what really makes up a nation, not its leaders, but its people. Not just its "grand" ideas and "accomplishments" but the dissent, the frustrations, and the reaction to the accomplishments and policies of the "saviors."
Written/taught history tends to suggest that there is a vast consensus about what is important ("what matters") and how such important things are to be viewed. That there were few rebellions among the working classes. That the American Indians faded away largely by becoming obsolete, " assimilated," or savages that they werenecessarily "disposed" of. That immigrants were always welcomed with open arms into this country's melting pot. Workers were valued and respected by their employers. Soldiers gladly went off to war to die for what they were told they were dying for. The government is a benevolent group of individuals with only the best interests of "the people" at heart and no agenda of its own. Zinn says no and that a look at the historical record underneath all the great "accepted" heroes and statesmen bears out that fact.
In his Declarations of Independence (1990), he notes how the Constitution uses the phrase "We the People...," yet despite the attempt for those who wrote it (white, rich, landowners, who were a certain "elite group within the nation"), their ideas and views do not always coincide with the desires and needs of "the people," but rather the desires and needs of those in power (whether politically or economically). That is what he attempts to rectify in the A People's History...a task he admits is "more than any one person can fulfill" but that "despite its limitations, it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance;" one that "attempts to represent their submerged, deflected, common interest."
Zinn, not being merely a professor on some campus far away from the "people" he writes about, has his credentials. He worked in a shipyard at eighteen, enlisted in the air force during World War II (flew on bomber missions), worked at a black college in the Deep South (Spelman College in Atlanta), took part in the civil rights movement, and the antiwar movement during Vietnam. He doesn't just write about the common (often uncommon) man but rose from his ranks and continues to advocate for him.
So of course, Zinn has a bias and owns up to it early on. Part of his point is that the "received history" we grew up on has its own inherent biases as well, often institutionally indoctrinated into the writers. He feels that there can be no such thing as "objective" history (or reporting) in any pure sense, because even those apparent "objective" facts were chosen for a reason over other possible facts. What one omits or misinforms about or what is stated and then "[buried] ...in a mass of information" is as telling as the facts that one chooses to present. Those things that get lost in that mass of information, misinformation, or "quiet omission" are the stories of the people that made and make up the United Statesthese are the stories he wishes to tell.
So in 662 pages (the current paperback edition), he manages to tell those stories. Suffragettes, feminists, slaves, class/labor strugglers, immigrants, protesters, civil rights activists, American Indians, draft dodgers, those that dissented against what they were told their lives should be and how they should be lived and how much (little) they are worth in the "grand" scheme of the great nation. Strikes, marches, arrests, murders (both "sides"), riots, protests, petitions, and the quiet suffering that has often been ignored by those parading the great achievements of great men (almost always men) in textbooks. And even when these things are given small due, it's almost never from their point of view. History is all too often written by and for the victors and the victors are all too often not "the people."
Quite an achievement for a single historian and the book's success suggests that the dissent and disillusionment with "the way things are" is stronger than we are allowed to knowas Noam Chomsky (who has worked with Zinn in the past) has often pointed out, one of the ways a government deals with dissension is to make those who dissent feel like they are the only ones, thus keeping them from organizing against the "rules of the game" as those in power write them. A People's History... collects the stories of those who organizedthey were not alone.
Zinn, while never hiding his feelings about the people and movements he's describing, manages to save his philosophizing for the final chapter, where he explains his reasoning and why he feels the work is important. He also gives his hopes for the future. And he is hopeful: "while it's true that I take a very critical view of the United States government in history, I take a very positive view toward the mass movements of people in America who have fought to make the country a better place" (www.metroactive.com). Outside of the scope of the book, it can be forgiven after the monumental and important work that precedes it (and ignored if one chooses).
But something that is often missed in the reviews or descriptions of the work seems to be that while everyone points out that the books tells "America's story from the point of view ofand in the words ofAmerica's women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers" (back cover), it's so much more. As part of his explanation of bias he notes that the vast majority of history we have received is "so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movementsthat we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission." Though he is admittedly "disrespectful," his history is not just that of the "people," but clearly is also a history of those in power. Through the eyes, words, and actions (and reactions) of the ordinary (and extraordinary) "forgotten" subjects, Zinn tells the history of those in power and what they did to gain and then maintain that power. The generals and presidents and statesmen are all therethis is their history, too.
I've before never read a history book that on a couple occasions actually made me feel emotional. These peopleeveryday, average Joe types from the distancewho actually went out and acted, often against near or actually impossible odds to take a stand and to make a substantive change for their lives and another's. People whose convictions transcended fear for personal safety in moments that have, regrettably, been largely ignored or given only a passing footnote in the historical "canon." Moments that are as important and significant as any dozen battles against so-called rogue states. I could never hope to have the courage to act in kind in their situation. I am a tiny person, the best I can do is write essays here and hope maybe someone will take the time to read them and remember who some of the real heroes are.
(Sources: Howard Zinn A People's History of the United States 1980, 1999: twentieth anniversary edition; Declarations of Independence: Cross-examining American Ideology 1990; www.metroactive.com/papers/sonoma/04.18.96/books-9616.html)