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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Writing History

Let's talk a little about writing. One of the important motifs here is finding the story, but then telling the story in a lucid, clear manner. Is it hard for you to write or does it flow easily?

I don't have to struggle to write simply. That comes naturally to me. Maybe if I'd gone straight through college, graduate school, Ph.D., maybe I would have had the same thing happen to me that happens to people who go through the academic mill, in that it cripples their ability to write clearly. Really. I grew up reading Upton Sinclair and Jack London and reading stuff that was clear and lucid. Or Dickens. Dickens was not a florid writer. He's a narrator. And so, yes, I think that writing simply came naturally to me. I would have to struggle to write academic prose.

You're a person who is up front about his values and up front about the emotion that he feels about injustice. I want you to talk about how your writing is affected by these honesties about both your values and your emotions. book cover: The Howard Zinn ReaderIs that a plus in making it easier to tell these stories?

I know that there is a kind of conventional wisdom, or, as I put it, conventional foolishness, that if you're passionate about something you can't really write well about it. In the arts we accept passion, and we accept that passion in the arts makes the arts come alive. But we don't accept it in scholarship, and therefore we draw a false line between the arts and scholarship. But I believe that being passionate about your scholarly work, being passionate about history is something that needs to be expressed in order to be honest. I think there's nothing more important than being honest about your feelings. Otherwise you are presenting something that is not yourself.

There is another element to it, and that is, in being passionate about something, you are giving that intensity to what you write, which magnifies its power. In a way, you're trying to make up for the fact that people who have written other things dominate the ideological landscape. Because you're a minority voice, you have to speak louder, more eloquently, more vividly, more passionately.

You have written, talking now about history and the importance of education, "It confirmed what I learned from my Spelman years, that education becomes most rich and alive when it confronts the reality of moral conflict in the world."

It's interesting that you bring up Spelman College in connection with that, because there's an example of the interaction between education and activism. When my students went into town for the first time to sit in, to demonstrate, to be arrested in spring of 1960, I had colleagues at Spelman, Morehouse, Atlanta University -- the complex of black colleges -- who said, "This is bad, they are hurting their education." One of them wrote a letter to the Atlanta Constitution saying "I deplore what my students are doing; they are cutting class; they are missing out on their education." And I thought, what a pitiful, narrow, cramped view of education this is. To think that what these students are going to learn in books can compare to what they will learn about the world, about reality. They will come from town, they will come back from prison, and then when they will go into the library, they will go into it with an enthusiasm and a curiosity that didn't exist before.

You also wrote, and I think you are talking about your years at Boston University, "I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it." What then is the link in the importance of history to activism?

I think the learning of history is a way of declaring, "I wasn't born yesterday; you can't deceive me." If I don't have any history, then whatever you, the person in authority, the president at the microphone announcing we must bomb here, we must go there, the president has the field all to himself. I cannot counteract, because I don't know any history. I can only believe him. I was born yesterday. What history does is give you enough data so that you can question anything that is said from on high. You can measure the claims that are being made by the people in authority against the reality. And you can look at similar claims that were made before, and see what happened then. Here's a president who's saying we're going to war for democracy. And then you go back through history and say, "How many times have presidents said we're going to war for democracy, and what have those wars really been about?" The history can clarify things, prepare you for dealing with the duplicities of the real world.

I just happened to have re-read your chapter on the Mexican Wars, and it's exactly what you're saying. As you hear the issues, the themes, the concerns of that time, which you often don't find in a normal history book, they resonate so much with the experiences of the Vietnam War.

I remember the New York Times ran a poll once, asking high school students questions about history. The idea was to find out how much high school students know. They do this every once in a while, basically to prove that high schools students are ignorant and that the people who make those polls are smart. The questions that the New York Times asked were questions like, "Who was the president during the Mexican War?" A really important question. Here's the New York Times, supposedly the ultimate in journalism. This is not the Star, the National Enquirer. And they are asking the question "Who was president during the Mexican War?" instead of asking, "How did we get into the Mexican War? How did it start? What was at stake? What lies were told? How much discussion was there in Congress before there was a declaration of war? How much desertion was there in the American army as a result of the American soldiers waking up and asking what are we doing here in this bloody mess?"

It's an example of where somebody at the start of the Vietnam War, listening to the claims of our government and how we must go into Vietnam for this or for that, knowing about the Mexican War, knowing about the Spanish-American War, knowing about the war in the Philippines, knowing about World War I -- well, people who knew that history would not accept blandly what we were being told!

Next page: Conclusion

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