Professionalizing History 4: Howard Zinn and the War Against American History
I’d like to thank anyone who gave me their thoughts and opinions (in person or through email) about the first three installments of this Professionalizing History series. In the last installment, Part 3, I discussed the differences between empathizing and sympathizing with history, referring to an incredible conversation overheard in the hallway one morning. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to go back and read these articles in order by publish date.
Americans have never been kind to their history. For those of you who are just now starting to dabble in the field of history and those of you who might currently be blinded by some sort of nostalgic nationalism, it might be hard for you to break out of the comfort zone that American history textbooks have boxed you into.
When I was a junior in high school, I began reading Howard Zinn. A brilliant historian and social activist, Zinn recorded a powerful message through his books. I would currently place Howard Zinn on the same historical level as Noam Chomsky in terms of educating the world through unique perspective…one that is ultimately shunned as having a “left” bias despite being, in my honest depiction, the most energized and academic forms of history to this date.
I’ve heard my colleagues groan in agony towards topics such as colonialism or imperialism, gawking about how “malewashed” and “whitewashed” those histories are. Well, Howard Zinn looked past that and didn’t let it get in his way of recording what he believed was the truest form of history. He witnessed the past through three perspectives – those of the executioner, the executionee, and the crowds of people watching the execution take place. This style of perspection-based history, one that empathizes with the victims and the blood that wrote history for the “white” victors, is against the traditional sense of Americanizing History on all levels.
For those of you who have been studying history for quite some time now, you understand that most state-funded textbooks concerning American history are merely a collection of low-vocabulary propaganda articles consisting of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and every single so-called “victory” that America brought to the world stage. Those history books, oftentimes used for federal testing and curriculum, like to glance over slavery. They like to skim past the Ku Klux Klan and the violent hatred of Jim Crow laws. They like to cover up the Trail of Tears and the Japanese Genocide that occurred during World War II with American flags.
That’s one of the main reasons I appreciate and recommend the histories of men like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Rodolfo F. Acuna. They aren’t focused on the “male-washed”, “white-washed” cultural revisions of human history that so many of my colleagues have become accustomed to through their entry leveled courses on history; and it’s a shame that these people think of history like that. Can you imagine being a student of history and absolutely hating the colonial era, groaning at any mention of it, because of what you read in elementary education and how you perceived it years down the road? A good historian is one that can reach past the “white-washing” or “male-washing” of sources. One that can dig deep and uncover the perspectives that have been covered up by the so-called victors of the past.
So, why have I decided to feature someone like Howard Zinn in this Professionalizing History course? There are two major reasons.
For one, he is the perfect historian to turn to when it comes to understanding perspectives. You cannot fully understand slavery until you look through the eyes of an African American slave in South Carolina. You cannot fully understand American-Indian relations until you look through the eyes of a Cherokee Indian who was jerked out of his native homeland and forced to migrate to Oklahoma. You cannot fully understand an ‘American tragedy’ until you look through the eyes of people who were truly harmed. You have to empathize with these perspectives to get past the “white-washed” and “male-washed” platforms that American history has literally been based on.
The other reason I’ve included Zinn is because of his own personal history. At the beginning of this series, I decided that I was going to take personal stories and implement them into professionalizing history. So, to start this off, I give to you a personal story that I believe will Segway perfectly into the story of Howard Zinn and the War Against American History.
A friend of mine once told me I should run for office because of my rather loud passion for progressive politics. I informed him that I would never get elected because of my inability to appeal to those who may disagree with me; that the average American wouldn’t be ecstatic to rally behind an openly atheist (or non-practicing in the least) progressive that even slightly resembles Democratic socialism. Then Bernie Sanders happened.
That same friend came back to me, saying that anything could be possible. I hesitated, saying I’d probably get killed in this new realm of politics. He responded with the following: “If you’re not getting into trouble, you’re not doing your job as a historian. If you are not discomforting the comfortable, then you are either writing propaganda or Hallmark cards.”
Of course, I liked that quote. I informed him that I actually wanted that quote on a literal Hallmark card and moved on with my day.
A few days later, I nominated that same friend for a position on the Justice Democrats platform. I informed him, and he sent me a text: “You really have no idea how many skeletons I have in my closet, do you?”
I replied, with a grin: “If you’re not ruffling some feathers and your skeletons are locked in a closet, you’re just making skeletons or hallmark cards.”
He sent back, solemnly, “Some of those skeletons come out and I’ll be the propaganda.”
That conversation didn’t happen too long ago…less than a month, even. Yet it’s so applicable to the world of history. I’ve been studying history for years, yet that quote opened a whole new mindset. Why should anyone let doubts or worries or skeletons in the closet be used against what they could possibly do for the greater good?
Let me introduce you to a young man who was so eager to fight fascism during World War II that he cast aside any worries and fears in order to join the U.S. Army Air Force. Assigned as a bombardier in the 490th Bombardment Group, this young man dropped napalm bombs in southwestern France in an attempt to prevent Nazism from winning the war. Of course, this experience would serve as a strong foundation that would shape a very strong anti-war position in this man’s later years. Who is this man? Howard Zinn.
After the war, Zinn attended New York University thanks to the GI Bill. He graduated with a B.A. in 1951, elevating his academic career to Columbia University where, in 1952, he earned his M.A. and, in 1958, his Ph.D. in history. He minored in political science. The background to Zinn’s education is important when related to professionalizing history. He didn’t start as the man in a tweed jacket babbling on about battles. He started as a man dropping bombs on a battlefield.
Within the next decade, the veteran Zinn would find himself in an anti-war, anti-violence position that he would be known for throughout the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. Zinn risked everything – his academia, his tenure, and his place in American society – because he publically sided with the so-called minority movements.
He lost his tenure in June of 1963 for siding with “hippy students” in the stages of segregation. He protested at sit-ins and picket lines, and because of such – as he wrote – he observed thirty violations of the U.S. Constitution. The freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and equal protection laws that our country was based upon were thrown into the gutter when it came to Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, especially while he was living in Georgia. His stance – public, mind you – made some federal officials wary.
In 2005, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released the file that they had on Howard Zinn. 423 pages of information on Zinn’s life and activities were released. 423 pages of information…is that not astonishing? In 1949, the FBI had looked into him in fear of him being involved in a communist. Throughout the 60’s, Zinn’s anti-Vietnam Crusade and his influence on MLK “forced” the FBI to categorize Zinn as a high security risk to the United States of America.
Being against an international war, criticizing the FBI, and siding with a Civil Rights Activist was enough for Howard Zinn to be labeled as a “high security risk.”
The fact that the American government would have 423 pages on someone who can be simply described as an activist and historian is…rather scary! Anyone interested in the field of history should shudder at this story. But Howard Zinn through everything he had into the trash – his tenure, his safety, and an empty federal file – to side with the right side of history.
He ruffled feathers. He irritated the established traditional concepts of social and political rights. He let his skeletons out of that closet through undercover FBI reports that watched him like a hawk. He discomforted the uncomfortable.
And he wrote some damn good history, too.
So what does it take to be a professional historian? You have to be able to fight for your cause – whether it be with research, evidence, or activism. A good historian doesn’t cave under pressure of what is already established as history or politics. A good historian will ruffle some feathers with their writing, their ideas, and their presence in society.