A friend introduced me to Howard Zinn’s work when I was writing a novel and doing research on the thirties. He sent me to Howard Zinn’s paperback, The Twentieth Century, a single volume mostly taken from A People’s History of the United States. Often, I’ll read the first sentence of book’s preface, then skip to the first chapter. This one began, “My book, A People’s History of the United States…. “
“My book….” I felt as if I were in a room with the writer, settling back into a chair. His voice hooked me. His thoughts held me. This was not a traditional history, not a history of American heroes, but a history of those who suffered under our heroes. Ah, this was a history about the ideological choices our leaders made in our name from the bombing of Hiroshima to Mai Lai to Abu Ghraib. According to Zinn, the reason these atrocities are still with us is that we are willing to bury them under a mass of other facts—or I might add, non-facts. Finally, someone was articulating my concerns—What are the human costs, the moral costs of our actions? I remembered arguing with my father about dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Had we considered the costs? Was the action necessary? His lips narrowed. He spit words. “Would you rather that they bombed us?” A non sequitur. But that was the kind of thinking that blurred and buried the truth, the awful awesome truth of what we’d done to human beings.
In Canning Jars, the essay on my website which is about anti-Semitism in rural Virginia, I end by saying, “In fertile soil misunderstanding takes root, grows and flowers into hate. Best to dig up those roots and dry them out in the glittering sunlight of a nearly perfect autumn day.”
Howard Zinn was a person who dug up the roots of capitalism, of socialism, of racism, of sexism, of power, of powerlessness and held them up to the light. He fought to make the world a better place, not that he believed that he would succeed. For him the game was not about winning, but about acting. He wrote, “To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.”
Let us not forget him. Let us read him. Let us listen.