The Republic of T.

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RIP, Howard Zinn

What sad news.

Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and whose books, such as “A People’s History of the United States,” inspired young and old to rethink the way textbooks present the American experience, died today in Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling. He was 87.

His daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, said he suffered a heart attack.

“He’s made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture,” Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, said tonight. “He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”

Chomsky added that Dr. Zinn’s writings “simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation. He opened up approaches to history that were novel and highly significant. Both by his actions, and his writings for 50 years, he played a powerful role in helping and in many ways inspiring the Civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.”

For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension of the revisionist brand of history he taught. “A People’s History of the United States” (1980), his best-known book, had for its heroes not the Founding Fathers — many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out — but rather the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion and union organizers of the 1930s.

But, at the same time, what a legacy.

His “A People’s History of the United States,” is sitting on my bookshelf. I count is as one of the books that changed my life.

The first chapter, “Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress,” opens the book (at least my copy of it) without so much as an introduction or a preface, is like of being suddenly thrown into an ice cold bath after stepping out of a warm shower. Zinn doesn’t ease one into this history any more than the Arawack were eased into their new reality.

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone….” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

Because of Columbus’s exaggerated report and promises, his second expedition was given seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men. The aim was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans’ intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town, who reported that, although the slaves were “naked as the day they were born,” they showed “no more embarrassment than animals.” Columbus later wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

The Indians had been given an impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

As a African American and a gay man, I already knew that history was “written by the victors,” and thus didn’t include many people like me. (At least, not as primary actors. My people were pretty much relegated to decorating the set and sweeping up the stage after the real actors of history finished. Think Bayard Rustin.) But before his book I didn’t realize just how much history was wasn’t taught.

When my kids are old enough, I plan on making sure they’re equipped with Zinn’s book when they start learning history, and maybe even suggest passages to coincide with what they’re learning at the moment.

Their teachers probably won’t love me for it, but if nothing else my kids will learn to question and not swallow everything that they’re taught.

One Comment

  1. Most of the time history gets taught as a fairy tale with any deaths happening off-stage.

    I thank Prof. Zinn for using the clear eye in presentation of the past.

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