I first picked up Howard Zinn’s A People’s History when I was eleven years old. I had been dared to do so by a friend of mine who declared that if I successfully completed it, I’d go down in history as the biggest bookworm that ever walked the halls of our school.
675 pages of history. Definitely a huge undertaking, or so it seemed at the time. But I finished it regardless, not really comprehending its profundity and underestimating its importance.
Years later, as a freshman in high school, I was still reeling from the effects 9/11 had in shaping U.S. foreign policy and, conversely, the increasingly acrimonious atmosphere that I, as a Pakistani Muslim hijabi had to deal with. While grappling with questions of social justice and revolution, and nurturing a growing fascination with historical currents and international politics – the power struggles, the rise and fall of nations, how governments worked and what happened when they didn’t – I had the opportunity to pick up Howard Zinn again.
Today, I can say with the utmost gratitude, that it was Dr. Zinn who cultivated my growing awareness of the world. He taught me about American imperialism and jingoism, about revolutions and socialism, about civil disobedience, and more fundamentally, that even someone so ordinary and insignificant as I can make a difference, however small.
Dr. Zinn’s life as an intellectual dissident and peace activist began after serving as a shipyard worker and Air Force bombardier in World War II. He went to college under the GI Bill and was awarded his PhD from Columbia. Thereafter, he played an integral role in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and many other struggles for social and international justice during the last half of the 20th century.
His most important contribution came in the form of his unprecedented, phenomenal work, A People’s History of the United States. In it, he challenged all preconceived notions about democracy and fundamentally altered the way we look at American history. He wrote it, so that we could look “beyond what people have learned in school … history through the eyes of the presidents and the generals in the battles fought in the Civil War, [to] the voices of ordinary people, of rebels, of dissidents, of women, of black people, of Asian-Americans, of immigrants, of socialists and anarchists and troublemakers of all kinds.”
“Democracy doesn’t come from the top, it comes from the bottom,” he argued. History wasn’t shaped by so-called “great men” like Columbus , Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. It was through the collective efforts of thousands, millions of ordinary people who agitated for freedom, for equality, that African Americans won their independence. Abraham Lincoln could’ve cared less. Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson were racist war-mongers – nothing like the heroes they are usually depicted as. Thomas Jefferson, for all his eloquent proposals about “freedom and justice for all,” raped his female slaves.
What was most remarkable about Dr. Zinn was his “reverence for and his detailed study of what he called ‘the countless small actions of unknown people’ that lead to those great moments that enter the historical record,” Noam Chomsky, a lifelong friend of Dr. Zinn’s, reflected. And indeed, that was the most crucial lesson that he tried to impart onto his students and readers. “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope,” he wrote.
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Howard Zinn passed away in Santa Monica at the age of 87 on January 27th, 2010. His pen may have stopped writing, but his life and work will continue to inspire millions in the struggle for justice and freedom in the years to come.