An enduring manifestation of the Civil Rights Movement is that secondary school American history instruction has increasingly included the contributions made by minorities and women.
Recent students of history have been reminded that during the manifest moments of our past, previously ignored groups faced obstacles and made contributions of their own. For example, the high school study of World War II now includes the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen and the challenge they faced in fighting for a nation that treated them as second-class citizens. In the same unit, women—epitomized by the image of Rosie the Riveter—are recognized for the non-traditional contributions they made on the home front. Similar lessons focus upon Native Americans, immigrants, and others.
While seeming to balance the scales a bit in terms of recognizing these previously dismissed groups, history textbooks and state education standards continue to emphasize epochal events in a manner that tends to celebrate America.
In contrast, Howard Zinn tipped the scales even further with the 1980 publication of A People’s History of the United States in which he highlights some of the darker aspects of America’s past: the insidious resistance oppressed groups experienced as they pursued participation in the full measure of society; the political and economic priorities of a few that have shaped much of our history; and the actual, often less-than-noble motivations of those who have held power—including those traditionally held up as exemplars of American excellence.
Zinn readily admits that his history is one of interpretation, based upon decisions of what to include and what to omit. All history is this, of course, although not all historians are inclined to be so up front about it. The result is the story of the underdog: the socio-cultural experiences of Native Americans, particularly when confronted with Euro-American invasion; enslaved Americans toiling away in the field whose stories of community and resistance reveal the great hypocrisy that underscored their legal condition; immigrants literally worked to death in factories and the efforts that many of them made to improve their lot through union organization.
Much of Zinn’s chronological single-volume work is dependent upon the deep study of history previously circulated primarily among academically oriented historians. Zinn’s contribution, then, is to have compiled from these often singularly focused and inevitably dusty accounts an easily accessible story that presents a broader view of our nation’s past. Wildly celebrated on one side of the political divide, Zinn’s account was also condemned from the other, a cultural separation that continues as we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century.
Zinn’s brightest flashpoint is his portrayal of Christopher Columbus, an icon of the American origin story. Not only does Zinn castigate Columbus’ treatment of Native Americans who perished in alarming numbers following his arrival in 1492, Zinn goes after the historians who, as recently as 1954, briefly acknowledge the “genocide” and then, just as quickly, go on to extol the virtues of Columbus the explorer and adventurer.
Zinn also challenges perceptions of Colonial America as an egalitarian society facing British oppressions. Rather, the eve of American independence is characterized by massive disparities in wealth and circumstance among colonists; a clear precursor to modern complaints of economic inequality. Further, Zinn portrays the colonial middle-class, not as a model of economic equality and opportunity, but as the construct of wealthy colonists in need of a social class buffer to temper the unpredictable impulses of poor whites, slaves, and Indians.
In another example, as post-civil rights era history instruction acknowledges the abuses of slavery, Zinn’s People’s History advances the argument that America’s original sin and its descendants are deep and long-standing characteristics of the entirety of the American experience. Further, Zinn provides many examples of whites and blacks living and cooperating with one another when unencumbered by the whims of an elite class of wealthy whites. In this iteration, enduring enmity among the races in this country can be traced directly to a small yet extremely influential minority whose economic and political interests shaped modern American attitudes toward race.
And so on.
Social, political, and economic norms can turn on these varying interpretations. Demagogues can rally great swaths of society in defense of one over the other. Differing accounts of historical good and evil can motivate millions to celebrate the virtue of a past America or push others to demand the immediate correction of historically grounded injustice.
I ponder these things now due to the publication of a book whose title reveals its intent: Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America by Mary Grabar.
Re-reading an updated version of A People’s History in tandem with Grabar’s work has reminded me that history is, and always has been, a weapon that can be wielded to promote an agenda. It is no coincidence that it reaches us now, in 2019, in the Age of Trump.
It is my view that Grabar’s attempt to debunk Zinn is an effort to reclaim what Zinn challenged; the enduring myth of a virtuous America meant to inspire patriotism in young people through a hazy promotion of American exceptionalism. Perhaps most revealing is her criticism of Zinn’s fondness for Karl Marx, a modern flashpoint of its own as left and right squabble over what we have been and what we might become.
Regardless, Debunking Howard Zinn makes some relevant observations because, as others have pointed out for nearly forty years, A People’s History is not without its flaws and shortcomings. Throughout those four decades, however, Zinn has continued to serve as a check on those who would like to return us to an America that exists only in books like Grabar’s.
The irony is, America is indeed an exceptional country, not because our past is replete with virtuous deeds, but because the present continues to be populated with those free to argue—as did Howard Zinn. We can do better.