Howard Zinn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Radical History: Conversation with Howard Zinn, Author, 'A People's History of the United States'; 4/20/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Howard, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

You've described in your autobiography a public lecture at which someone asked from the audience asked, "How did you come by the particular ideas you now have?" I want to follow that line of inquiry. How did the circumstances of your youth affect the way you came to see the world?

Well, I think, of course, that was a very good question. It should be asked of all historians. Growing up in a working class family, going to work in a shipyard at the age of 18, working for three years in a shipyard, getting into the sweat of industrial life and being aware of the difference between the way we lived our lives and the lives of the people we saw on the movie screen or in the magazines, developing a kind of class consciousness: book cover: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving TrainI think that had an effect later on my teaching and writing of history. Then joining the Air Force, becoming a bombardier in the Air Force, going through a war, coming out of the war with very, very strong anti-war ideas, even though I was in "the best of wars," as they say -- the "good war." And then, teaching in Spelman College, my first teaching job. Teaching at a black women's college in the South -- Atlanta, Georgia. Seven years there. Going through and becoming involved in the Civil Rights Movement -- I think all of that shaped my thinking about history.

Let's talk a little about your youth, and then talk about the other things. How, specifically, do you think your parents shaped your character?

My parents were not political people at all. My parents were just ordinary. They were Jewish immigrants who worked in garment factories when they came here, and then my father became a waiter. You might say he moved up in the world. He went from being a factory worker to being a waiter, and then he became a head waiter. As far as political influence, no. The only influence they had on my life was my observation of their lives. My observation that my father was working very hard, an honest hard-working man. My mother working very hard, raising four sons. And yet, of course, they had nothing to show for it. That is, they were perfect counterpoints to the Horatio Alger myth that if you work hard in this country, you will get somewhere. I think that intensified my feeling about the injustice of an economic system in which there are people all over the country like my parents who work very, very hard and have nothing to show for it.

One of the things that your parents did was obtain for you a subscription to a collection of Dickens books, and so reading became very important to you and also offered you insights, right?

Oh, no doubt. Reading, reading, reading at an early age. My parents knew I was a reader even though they were not readers. My father was barely literate, my mother was somewhat literate. But they knew that I was interested in books and reading. They had no idea who Charles Dickens was, but they saw this ad, they could send away coupons and a dime for each book. So they got me this whole set of Dickens and I made my way through Dickens.

What did you learn from Dickens?

From Dickens what I got was this ferocious acknowledgement of the modern industrial system and what it does to people, and how poor people live and the way they are victimized, and the way the courts function. The way justice works against the poor. Yes, it was Dickens' class consciousness that reinforced my own. It was a kind of justification for the beliefs I was already developing. Yes; it told me, what reading very often does for you, tells you you are not alone in these secret thoughts you have. Not long ago I read that someone asked Kurt Vonnegut, "Why do you write?" and he said, "The reason I write is to tell people: You are not alone."

You mentioned some of these events in your life, your experience in the war, Spelman College. I have a sense that life and learning for you are never separated; that life informs your scholarship and your scholarship informs the way you live your life.

I think that's true. There is a strong connection between the two. I think that's probably because I had so many vivid life experiences before I entered the academic world, before I entered the world of scholarship. By the time I went to college under the GI Bill at the age of 27, I'd already worked in the shipyard, I'd been in a war, I'd worked at various jobs, and so I brought to my reading of history those experiences. And then I learned from my experience something broader, that is, a historical perspective which reinforced the ideas that I'd gained from my own life.

Before you were in college you were working on the docks and you were involved in a demonstration at Times Square, and the police attacked. In your autobiography you wrote, "Henceforth I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country, not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root requiring an uprooting of the old order: the introduction of a new kind of society -- cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian." That is an example of a kind of event that changed your thinking, and that's an argument that you make in a lot of your history, that people can be changed by things that happen to them and act accordingly.

That's right. Sometimes it's one very vivid experience. Of course, it's never just one vivid experience, but it's that one experience coming on top of maybe a kind of only semi-conscious understanding that's been developed, and then it becomes crystallized by an event, and I think that's what happened to me at the age of 17, when I was hit by a policeman and knocked unconscious. I woke up and said, my God, this is America, where, yes there are bad guys and there are good guys, but the government is neutral. And when I saw that, no, the police are not neutral, the government is not neutral, that was a radical insight.

You went on to school, working on the docks while you got your degree; you did your dissertation on [Fiorello] LaGuardia. What attracted you to LaGuardia? What did you find there that is a real and important theme in all your work?

I wasn't studying LaGuardia as a mayor, I was studying LaGuardia as a congressman in the 1920s, representing a poor district in East Harlem. As I read his papers, and I was very conscious that all through my education, from elementary school through graduate school, the twenties was presented as the age of prosperity, and here I was reading the letters that LaGuardia's constituency in East Harlem were writing to him. They were writing, "My husband is out of work, my kids are hungry, and they're turning off the gas." LaGuardia was the voice of the poor in Congress. He was a lone voice in Congress of the twenties, in the jazz age, speaking out for the poor, speaking out against Coolidge's sending Marines to Nicaragua in 1926, speaking out for immigrants. He was a radical in Congress, and that, of course, appealed to me.

You write that LaGuardia dug beneath the surface and held to the public a view that had been hidden.

Yes, and what had been hidden is the fact that underneath this veneer of prosperity were huge numbers of people in this country who were living under desperate circumstances. To me that was important, because it was not just a commentary of the twenties, but like all history, anything you learn about the past also becomes a commentary on your own time. It suggested to me that in our own time, we must look beneath the statements of political leaders who say, "Ah! We have an economic miracle today! The Dow Jones average has gone up." You always have to look beneath the superficial signs of prosperity to see how people are living.

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