Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn

A People's History of American Empire, a graphic novel"History" is generally defined broadly as "the stuff that's historic": names, dates, events, wars, inventions, discoveries. To many history teachers and to some authors, telling history is mostly a deliberation of which distractions to elucidate or emphasize. To others, it's a matter of hauling the company line, celebrating the triumphs of corporate interests and privileged people.
Zinn's work presents -- in a very uncomplicated manner -- a more complex way to regard history. He carried the camera to ground level and portrayed those who are not history's most recognizable players. He was immediate and practical. A fire in a crowded factory causes deaths; the reaction is not simply "better legislation." The reaction is what leads the survivors to demand better legislation. The reasons why that legislation takes years is the reaction of the owners or stockholders who have to lobby legislators to shape those laws to the owners desires, rather than to workers' needs.
The "people" -- the title characters in A People's History -- are the ones who did the work, fought in the wars, cultivated and shaped the land, demanded their rights and the rights of their children and for future generations.
I've read a lot of obituaries, and it's jarring to find words like "leftist" in the death notice of an academic, particularly that of a historian. There will be those who will always wave off his books indifferently. But they are unwilling to hear another part of what Zinn himself termed history's always incomplete story.
I have friends who took classes taught by Howard Zinn when they were matriculating at Boston University. At the very same time, I was afflicted by dry theology and philosophy professors who obsessively polished every over-shined surface of Hobbes' difficulties with Descartes and did nothing intellectually strenuous but point out each student's paper's typewriter ink inconstancy. I abandoned my trifling with ethics and aesthetics, took on a less ridiculous course of study, and thereby ensured a life of more enjoyable, if less predictable, employment.
I went on to read Professor Zinn's histories, and that informs my research to this day. How often do I read logs, letters, and personal journals to hear the voices of the crew, rather than rummage through the stock and stereotype of shipping reports and bills of lading? They're history, too, but "understanding the journey" is not the same as "noting the delivery of barrels of whale oil."
I lament that I never met Howard Zinn, and I regret that I was not in his classes. If I did not choose to enter Massachusetts politics, I would have at least had a better ear for those voices I hear now only after years of practice. On the other hand, I hear that there were... distractions ...at B.U. in those days.
This is from a photoshoot last Fall. Seriously.
(Marisa Tomei worked with Zinn on "The People Speak")

1 comment:

bigsam27 said...

"A People's History..." opened my eyes for the first time...