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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Let's talk a little about how you apply these insights from your own experience to the study of history. Let's talk about your philosophy of history. You've argued that what is selected and who selects the facts for history is very important. In fact, you quote Orwell, who wrote "Who controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past." So, I'm curious. How did these life experiences, your insight, lead you to focus on this alternative history, for example, of the United States?

My growing up and going to work and becoming, as I say, class conscious; and then going to school and reading in my history books, looking for things that I had begun to learn on my own. Working in a shipyard and actually organizing young shipyard workers and getting interested in labor history, reading on my own the history of labor struggles in this country, and then looking in the history books that were given me in school, looking for the large textile strike of 1912, the Colorado coal strike of 1913, looking for Mother Jones, looking for Emma Goldman, Bill Haywood. They weren't there.

So it became clear to me that the really critical way in which people are deceived by history is not that lies are told, but that things are omitted. If a lie is told, you can check up on it. If something is omitted, you have no way of knowing it has been omitted. book cover: A People's History of the United StatesLooking through history, looking at other things, looking at the treatment of race, looking at the treatment of women; it made me always ask the question: what has been left out of this story? And [it made me] look for other things. So when I started out my book, and I knew I had to start out with Columbus, because that's what all histories of the United States start off with, I said, "What is left out?" The Indian point of view. And then Las Casas comes into the picture, telling the other side of the story.

The Jacksonian period, our Jacksonian democracy: Arthur Schlesinger writes this glowing book about Andrew Jackson and Jacksonian democracy. What else was going on? And then I find out that Jackson is responsible for the brutal treatment of the Indians in the Southeast, driving them across the Mississippi, thousands of them dying. Jackson is a racist. Jackson is a slave owner. Under Jackson, the industrial system begins with the mill girls going to work at the age of 12 and dying at the age of 25. I became conscious of omissions in history, and that's what I was determined to try to remedy.

As you write these accounts of the forgotten, you get inspiration from their courage, the courage that has not appeared in the [standard] texts. But on the other hand, there is your courage, and I'm curious about the roots of that. The courage to take these stands both as a historian in what you write and as an activist. What are the roots of that courage in your life?

It's not a courage to me, it's a sad commentary, that we think it requires a lot of courage just to speak your mind. I'm not going to be executed. I'm not even going to be given a long jail sentence. I may be thrown into jail for a day or two, and that has happened to me eight to nine times. I may be fired, I may get a salary decrease, but these are pitiful things compared to what happens to people in the world. So it doesn't take much courage to do that. I had two friends, my closest friends in the Air Force, both of whom were killed in the last weeks of the war, and I think after you've been through a war experience, and after you've been aware of people dying, and somebody says, "Are you willing to risk your job? Are you willing to risk a salary cut? Are you willing to risk that you won't get tenure?" -- these are pitiful risks compared to the risks that people have taken in the world.

Many people, though, don't have that little bit of courage, so it makes a difference.

They need historical perspective.

Personal perspective, you seem to be saying, too.


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