With his bright red pen, historian, playwright and political activist Howard Zinn slashed through history texts with a zeal for truth. His writing, including his major work “A People’s History of the United States,” acted as a “counterforce” to what he viewed as a corrupt take on history and made him a rock star in campuses across the nation.
Zinn wrote on the “genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt…and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln … He also shined an insistent light on the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war,” wrote his New York Times obituary.
“I got the sense that people were hungry for a different, more honest take,” Zinn said of his revisionist history book “A People’s History of The United Sates.”
Oregon State University-Cascades professor Dr. Natalie Dollar organizes an annual Day of Zinn each year as part of the Season of Nonviolence.
“The main purpose of Day of Zinn is to recognize the idea that collective action resonates in a democracy,” said Dollar. Sharing Zinn’s work offers “a more complex understanding of who we are as a country. We are not the America that we were in 1492.”
Dollar added that through Day of Zinn, “I try to create the idea that we are not powerless. Groups of people have tremendous power in this country. That’s the advantage of the collective–all sorts of talents come together.”
OSU-Cascades student Gina Meredith attended the event last year. “I think its invaluable to offer as many viewpoints as possible, but the discussion was divisive. There was a lot of positioning.”
“One of the exciting points about Zinn is that he is controversial,” offered Dollar. “It is important that we do engage differences and controversy. It’s too easy not to speak up.”
Born Aug. 24, 1922 to Jewish immigrants, Zinn grew up in Brooklyn, New York. The New York Times quoted Zinn regarding his frequent moves, “I lived in all of Brooklyn’s best slums.” Zinn worked in shipyards before serving as an Air Force bomber in World War II. The G.I. Bill put him through college, leading to a Ph. D in history from Columbia University. Zinn was a professor at Spelman, a historically black women’s college, until he was fired for his participation in a civil rights demonstration. From 1964 until his retirement in 1988, Zinn was Professor of Political Science at Boston University.
In its obituary for Zinn, the New York TImes wrote, “To describe [A People’s History] as a revisionist account is to risk understatement.”
Princeton University professor Sean Wilentz said that Zinn’s work pulled history out of the confines of academia, but that “his [Zinn’s] view of history is topsy-turvy, turning old villains into heroes, and after a while the glow gets unreal.”
Opponents to Zinn’s work pull no punches. In a piece run on George Mason University’s website, History News Network, Daniel J. Flynn referred to A People’s History as “cartoon anti-history,” and went on to suggest that the book has sold over two million copies only because it has become required reading for so many university classes.
When accused of politically leftist bias, Zinn replied, “I am not troubled by that because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction…[those books are] so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”
The third annual Day of Zinn is scheduled for Feb. 1 as part of the 2012 Season of Non Violence.