The Howard Zinn I Remember
Next Christmastime, it will be exactly fifty years since as a graduate student at Columbia University I attended the Columbia "smoker" at the American Historical Association meetings in New York, looking for work. At about midnight there came toward me across the floor Bill Leuchtenberg, in whose classes both Howard and I had studied, and together with him a tall, skinny man with dark hair, already walking awkwardly because of a back injury sustained (as I understand it) at a Manhattan warehouse where he worked while a graduate student. Howard hired me to join the faculty of Spelman College, a college for African American women in Atlanta.
That summer in 1961, before moving to Atlanta, myself, Howard, and his two children Myla and Jeff climbed Mt. Chocorua in New Hampshire. As he narrates in his autobiography, up and down the mountain Howard and I discussed every imaginable political topic either of us could think of and found nothing about which we disagreed (Howard tells this story in a chapter concluding that class origin does not determine everything). As he also describes in the memoir, when, two years later, he was unceremoniously fired just after students had dispersed for the summer and so could not readily protest, I emerged from a hospital room where my son lay after a nearly life-ending fall from a window and did what I could to organize the expression of indignation about the way Howard had been discharged. Not only was Howard a tenured professor and a department head, he had organized an innovative new program of Asian Studies for the entire Atlanta University complex.
All of that said, I should like to make the following points:
I disagree with the statement that Howard Zinn was "after all, a political scientist." He was an historian who, after discharge by Spelman in June 1963, could find a job only in a political science department.
As I have written in Radical History Review, the most remarkable thing about Howard as an academician was that he was always concerned to speak, not to other academicians, but to the general public. Soon after arriving in Atlanta, I asked him what papers he was preparing for which academic gatherings. This was what I supposed historians did. Howard looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. He was one of two adult advisers to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was preoccupied with the question of how may racism be overcome.
My second enormous debt to Howard has to do with oral history.
As a teacher, I was using B.A. Botkin's edition of WPA slave narratives and an autobiographical record by W.E.B. DuBois. The Zinns lived in the same building on the Spelman campus as did the Lynds. One day, I walked unannounced into the Zinn apartment and found Howard tape recording the words of two SNCC organizers who had just been released from jail in Albany, Georgia. As I have also written in RHR, it was as if a light went on inside my head. It suddenly occurred to me that I, too, could do oral history.
For those who have accompanied me thus far I now wish to make clear that from a very early time, Howard and I had differences about history. Like other participants, I was caught up in the lived experience of Mississippi Freedom Summer, during which I was Freedom School coordinator. Three years later, just before leaving New Haven for Chicago, I was walking across the New Haven Green and saw Dave Dennis, principal CORE representative in the 1964 summer project. I invited him to breakfast the next morning. He told Alice and myself that SNCC staff had initially opposed inviting hundreds of white volunteers (myself included) to Mississippi. As Wesley Hogan has written, a mystique hangs over those doings that makes it difficult to ask questions. But she has also shared extracts from the SNCC archives which show that a majority of SNCC staff not only initially opposed the invitation to volunteers, but also, on the very eve of the summer project, wondered why Mississippi African Americans would wish to be seated at a convention of the national Democratic Party. I never could draw Howard into consideration of such issues.
I believe that not only was Howard a complex human being, but also that particular books that he wrote and particular efforts in which he engaged, such as "The People Speak" on the History Channel, have both pluses and minuses. I doubt that any of Howard Zinn's critics wish that he had expressed a more "nuanced" view of the encounter between Columbus and the Arawak Indians, the opening scene of his People's History and far and away my favorite part of that book (I can remember, when I was a Harvard undergraduate, Samuel Eliot Morison lecturing on Columbus in his yachting whites). But in my own graduate work I came to feel that historians practicing "history from below" and "history from the bottom up," of whom I was one, had a tendency to romanticize the poor and oppressed persons whom they studied and, especially, to believe that such folks were motivated by ideology to a greater degree than was in fact the case.
The Hudson Valley farm tenants whom I studied supported or opposed the American Revolution based on the politics of their landlords, believing that if the side to which their landlord belonged was defeated, they might come to own their farms. Tenants in southern Dutchess County demanded the confiscation of the estates of their Loyalist landlords whereas tenants fifty miles away, whose landlord was an ardent supporter of independence, staged an armed revolt in support of the King. Similarly, city artisans, who as Sons of Liberty were the cutting edge of the struggle for independence, not only voted for the supposedly counter-revolutionary new Constitution in 1787-1788 but staged elaborate parades in its support. Why? In each case, artisans sought whatever would keep the import of British manufactured goods from destroying their livelihoods.
My residence of more than a quarter century in a declining steel city, Youngstown, Ohio, has reinforced this view of things. No apology is needed that farm tenants should wish to own the farms on which they toiled, that artisans (like Mexican farmers today) should wish to prevent imports from abroad from destroying their means of making a living, or that a steel worker should turn toward whomever seemed to hold out some hope of reopening the mill. The point is that in none of these instances were ordinary folks motivated by ideas. They were trying to survive economically.
I don't wish to butcher a complicated topic with another set of over-simplifications. I simply observe that Howard was never very much interested in these matters. I wrote to Howard on the eve of Freedom Summer, after an intense SNCC meeting (see Carol Polsgrove's book, Divided Minds, for extracts from the letter) saying that it seemed to me SNCC needed an economic program comparable to "40 acres and a mule" for what people might be able to do once they had achieved the vote. Howard was preoccupied with the need for federal marshals to be sent South to protect civil rights volunteers. I was uneasy about ever-increasing dependence on the national government. A few days later Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were murdered. But I believe that lack of agreement about a long-range economic program was a major reason that, after the summer of 1964, SNCC floundered.
It would be wrong to suggest that Howard clung stubbornly to an unchanging worldview. This may have been by and large true of him (as it has been generally true of myself) since the mid-Sixties. But he changed dramatically as a young man in his attitude toward war. Howard grew up in the era of the anti-fascist Popular Front and volunteered for service as a bombardier in the Army Air Force. Two things described in his autobiography caused him to change his mind. First, there was another young man who, during the long hours of "hurry up and wait" before bombing runs, discussed politics with Howard. The young man believed that the war was a contest of rival imperialisms. If that is so, Howard finally asked him, why are you here? To talk with people like you, the young man answered. A few weeks later he was killed. Second, shortly before the end of the war, Howard took part in obliterating a French village in which German troops, waiting to surrender, had taken refuge. Accordingly, Howard, while never a pacifist, became convinced that no conceivable modern war could be worth the collateral deaths and other mayhem it would inevitably cause.
So what do I think? My favorite memory of Howard has to do with the end of the first version of his play "Emma." A group of aging anarchists are gathered at the Lower East Side cafeteria where they have always hung out. They are stirring the embers and planning to leaflet the next morning about something or other. Suddenly, Alexander Berkman walks in. He has just been released from many years of imprisonment for his abortive attempt to murder Henry Clay Frick during the 1892 Homestead strike. His friends break off their discussion. Berkman says, What were you talking about when I came in? They respond, Oh, it doesn't matter: this is our time to celebrate your release. No, I want to know, Berkman persists. The friends explain their leafleting project. Berkman says, And do you have someone for every location? To tell you the truth, they answer, we still need someone for Broome Street. Berkman says, I'll take Broome Street -- and the curtain falls.
If the concern of Howard's critics is to insist on his many-sidedness and complexity, that should be our approach to any historical personage or phenomenon. But let us not caricature him. It may be maddening to David Horowitz and Ron Radosh that the People's History has sold something like two million copies. But shouldn't the historian's question be to try to understand why the book has captured the conscience of a generation? I have arranged for it to be sent to certain Ohio prisoners my wife and I know well. One of them is a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood. He wrote back, anxious to reassure me that the book was making the rounds of the cell block, "to blacks as well as whites."
Go well, brother Howie. Like the heroes of Stephen Spender's poem, "I Think Continually Of Those Who Were Truly Great," you "left the vivid air signed with your honor."
- Howard Zinn - Tributes, Memorials, and Obituaries
- Howard Zinn's show has been"hyped" says Ron Radosh in a highly critical review
- Rick Shenkman: The Left's Blind Spot
- Michael Kazin: Howard Zinn's Disappointing History of the United States
- Joseph A. Palermo: Remembering Howard Zinn
- Michael Honey: Howard Zinn's Disputed Legacy
- Ron Briley: Thank You, Howard Zinn
- Ron Radosh: America the Awful - Howard Zinn's History
- Sheldon M. Stern: Howard Zinn Briefly Recalled
- Staughton Lynd: The Howard Zinn I Remember
- Eric Foner: Zinn's Critical History
comments powered by Disqus
- Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
- U.K. Released Hundreds of Nazis After the Holocaust, Says Leading Historian
- NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?
- Historians Against the War gathering signatures for new resolution to AHA on alleged violations of academic freedom in Israel
- Academic Seeks Death Certificate for Outlaw Billy the Kid