Ten years ago, on January 27, 2010, activist historian Howard Zinn died. I never met him, but his death felt like losing a family member. If you had told me on that mournful day that a decade later I’d be interviewing Cornel West about Zinn, I would’ve told you to stop playing with me. Both Zinn and West transformed my social consciousness as a teenager.
I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, where radical abolitionist John Brown lived when he first met Frederick Douglass. After Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, John Brown, along with others, formed the League of Gileadites, an armed militia that made Springfield into one of the few effective safe havens in the country for those who’d escaped slavery. It was Zinn’s work that introduced me to Brown, as well as to so many other freedom fighters left out of textbooks.
In my sophomore year of high school, kicked out of history class one day for insubordination, I fled to the library. When the librarian asked me what I was doing there and I told her, she handed me a copy of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980). In Zinn, I found a kindred spirit and a mentor: a secular Jew like myself, he gave me a language to express my outrage at war, the exploitive practices of predatory capitalism, and the absurdities of racial discrimination.
Zinn’s words led me to the work of Cornel West, and gave me the audacity to walk up to “Doc” (as I call him now) on a chance encounter in New York City in 2017. We were both waiting outside the IFC Center on West Fourth Street to see Chasing Trane, John Scheinfeld’s documentary about John Coltrane, and I was inspired to thank West for his work. Since that day, I’ve had the honor of auditing eight of his classes and have gotten to know him as I wish I had been able to know Zinn.
In this interview, West opens up about his friendship with Zinn and what he thinks his friend would have made of the past decade.