The People’s Historian, Dead at 87: Updated below

Posted on January 28, 2010


I became politicized at the height of the Rodney King verdict demonstrations in my early twenties. Before then I had been a pretty apathetic person. Naturally, like any change, the stage had already been set by an accumulation of events that had been happening over the years. I had lived in Barcelona for some time, and that was the first time that I had experienced virulent society wide racism. As an Arab-American speaking accented Spanish, I was the target of constant police harassment, to the point where if I saw a police officer, I generally began turning the other way or ducking into a shop.  I found out that my landlady had been asking other tenants if I was a drug dealer and if my girlfriend was a heroin addict or prostitute. This culminated for me during a police sweep of my neighborhood, the Barrio Chino, where I and two American friends were arrested together. We all had American passports, but where they were let go, I was detained and spent the next three days in a dark cell with about eighty Moroccans sleeping nose to toe. No one believed I was really American. It was obvious that there was no such thing as an Arab-American. Naturally, my passport had been forged.

Soon after I was released, the Gulf Crisis ignited, and then the war. It was the first time that I really became aware that I was not considered to be the same as my American friends. That in the eyes of the world—at that time at least, and perhaps now again as much—I was not really an American.

I was in San Francisco when the protests over the King verdict broke out a year or so later. I wasn’t concerned about that, I’d heard about some looting downtown the night before, but I had never really thought the cops would do any time and I didn’t really think it was a good idea to demonstrate by walking away with a television. Things still hadn’t coalesced for me. I had become aware that I was a “minority”, but for a lot of reasons, I wasn’t sure what that meant if anything. Walking out to get a burrito that afternoon, I was caught in a police cordon of the entire Mission district along with nearly a thousand other people. It was the most blatantly racist and imperial exercise of naked and unjust power that I’d ever seen. They put us in city buses and took us to another county’s jail. We were disappeared for three days, with no access to legal counsel and no phone access.

When we were finally released, I was angry. I remember it as a blur, and I remember that anger was almost intoxicating. I had the courage of a hero, I belted crowd raising speeches into microphones, I risked arrest again to protest, I spoke to newspaper reporters with an eloquence I never knew I’d had. I began volunteering with a group, and we would table by the Bart stations on Mission street, selling consciousness-raising books to every day people in the neighborhood. And one of these was A People’s History of the United States.

The book was a revelation to me, the personal histories came alive. It wasn’t just history, it was a saga of forgotten, unimportant people. People like me, my true ancestors. But they were speaking now, they were important! I remember pushing the book on anyone that would listen when I tabled. It was a guarantee, I would say, “its going to grab you by the throat from the first page, when you read about Columbus landing on Hispaniola, and the first thing he thinks is, I could run all these people with just a couple of swords.”

So this brings me to why I want to honor Howard Zinn, on the day of his death; a man I didn’t really know. His book collected my anger, distilled it, made it one with the collected history of the different, the persecuted; the misunderstood, the never-known, small-time and forgotten heroes of our country. Zinn’s collected personal stories, journals, letters, witnesses to history, were all people like me, each with a key to understanding the past, and unlocking the solutions to the future. And Zinn, was in the most perfect way, a testament to his own project. A working class veteran–the child of a waiter who’d never gone to school, Zinn was educated with the help of the GI Bill, itself the product of protest by the forgotten veterans of World War 1 in the Bonus March.  Without those voices that Zinn put in that book, I would never have become the politically aware person that I became, and without his own activist ancestors, Zinn would never have become the man who could write that book.

And so, if Zinn leaves any legacy, its that small changes do make a difference, that everyone of us can be a small change, that our changes aggregate, that we droplets can become rivers, with the force of all of history behind us. I never stopped looking at the world like a witness to history. Its why I’ve toiled in obscurity on this blog these past five years, its why I’ve never lost hope that I can make a difference, and that the people standing beside me on the train can make a difference. That I and all of us are tomorrow’s heroes, though no one alive may ever know it.

Maybe some day, in an equally oppressed future, some Zinn of the next generation will find these writings and the writings of other people, know that though polls showed Americans supporting our wars, that there was resistance. That people hated Guantanamo.  That there were people who recognized the important barrier broken by Obama and still hated him for not keeping his promises, for being just another American President. That there were American Palestinians and even Colombian Palestinians, and that their children were Colombian Palestinian Native Americans, and that they were soldiers too. And most importantly, that there were people like the man I’m writing about, Howard Zinn!


I had a real great email exchange with a couple of readers about Zinn and the nature of narrative and the value of political labels such as conservative, left or what have you. Paul, one of the participants managed to post some of that in the comments section, but the other person, Michelle couldn’t because I hadn’t yet approved her for comments. In the interest of discourse, I decided to post the whole [or most of it] exchange in the blog itself:

Paul wrote:

I know you’ve got your differences with Zinn & the People’s History, but it had a real impact on people – especially of my generation – who tried to understand why the world seemed SO different than what we were taught. I don’t think many people – certainly not me or Jaime – felt that Zinn’s was the ONLY story of America, just that it was a corrective to the one we were all raised with: a homogeneous society that suddenly burst out in inexplicable unrest in the 60s and 70s.

We’re now in a period of general political conformity, despite the culture wars: issues like minority rights, foreign policy, economic development & healthcare are set, though faux-debated within a narrow range. The media says that the range of thought in America runs from Harry Reid to John McCain, but it’s not so. So many voices are just not heard, relegated to (& marginalized by) blogs and conferences.

The story of the United States is – always was – bigger than what’s in newspapers and history books.
Michelle responded:

think of it like the ipad- Zinn was a man who had a chance to create a paradigm chance in the way history was taught- balanced and story based. and instead did nothing put present and equally biased view of history from the voice of the previously unheard.

bias is bias and raising a generation of children to honor what they are taught in “A People’s History” is, in and of itself, not wrong. but, we are raising generations of children to honor and not question what they are taught, not just in “A People’s History”, but in any reference text, any TV news show.

Until people are taught to open their eyes, examine and live in the world (don’t bus kids from Dot to Newton, bus them from Newton to Dot. although why inner-city youth continue to be low academic achievers is actually a very different can of worms. or maybe not, since it is mainly a product of culture values and feeling without a place in the current societal hierarchy) nothing will change. voices will be marginalized and the “range of opinions” will continue to be the ever shrinking scale of center -right to center-left that appeals to the MOST people, without any necessary thought.

My anger towards Zinn has more to do with the way Newton Public Schools reacted when i dared to suggest that simply biasing history in the other direction wasn’t an unbiased history at all. i don’t know what Zinn intended, but i hope he would be horrified that that is the way his book is being used.

if Jaime (who i am presuming is the author of this blog) really hopes that someday someone will collect the voices of today’s marginalized “witnesses to history” he should do it himself. take responsibility for your opinions. writing a blog is a great first step. now find a way to bring blogs together- blogs that agree with this and blogs of the right-wing-ignorant-god-crazed. but even that is not enough, anyone can write a blog. how many people are willing to put in the amount of research and fact checking in creating a blog post as a “witness to history” that would be worthy of actually being that… which is the second problem i had with “A People’s History”- how do you create a standard for opinions. if you and Murthy were to write about winter in Boston, whose voice would be more accurate? the answer is that question is stupid, how do you contextually represent both voices?

“tomorrow’s heroes” may never be judged as such today, but who is really doing what it takes to step up to the plate to actually become one?

Paul responded:

My idea of democracy is a contesting of differing opinions WITHOUT the depersonalization of elections, media, & ahem, blogs. Those obviously have their places inside of a functioning body politic, but at present that body is ravaged by money cancer & on consent-manufacturing life support. Face to face interactions between left & right, teapartiers & treehuggers, Hayekians & socialists might actually lead to productive dialogue instead of pointless flame-wars.

How we get from here to there is a profound question. My first novel was partly an attempt to work out this sort of yearning for apocalypse that is increasingly common among radicals and in general in society: “flush it all away” in the words of the Tool song. There’s an appeal to the clean-slate scenario, but the likelihood that – rather than bringing about the social democratic millennium – the collapse of the United States would lead to a Russia-style robber-baron oligarchy. & as much as it offends my radical sensibilities, even incrementalism is preferable to THAT.

Jaime is going to the US Social Forum this year, which will be interesting in terms of at least providing a forum for progressive voices. A dialogue between progressive and conservative may be too much to ask for at this point, but not impossible in a different world…

Omar [who is also Jaime] responded:

Indeed, I didn’t mean to imply that Zinn’s view was CORRECT. In fact, I really mistrust anyone who says “what really happened is…” because that’s as much a product of in-out-group thinking as the mainstream version.

I think Zinn’s main objective was to create a “people’s” perspective–that is a perspective just as biased but from another—and even many—points of view. I don’t think there’s any other option in coming to develop one’s optimal opinion about anything. Collect as many viewpoints as possible, study the bias, pit them against one another and see what makes the  most sense from the mash up. From the beginning that’s how I’ve viewed Zinn, and I think that’s where the power in his work lay for me. The idea that we aren’t lost in the sands of history, that we can leave markers in the historical record. Indeed, when I lived in Palestine and I really wondered what we were really doing and about how hopeless our work seemed, a friend of mine that I really look up to used to say, “when all is said and done, you’ve contributed to the historical record, if nothing else”. And that’s no small thing, being a witness to history. While I’ve always enjoyed reading personal accounts of almost anything, from cooking rice to watching battles, to being stuck in the cheap seats at the March on Washington, my quest has never been to collect those. Instead, I’ve wanted to leave my voice for some future version of “me” to read and know that there were people, even in the early otts, who WERE certain things, WHO believed other things, that were as unique. I suppose that comes from having such a collision of cultural histories to deal with. I think that there are other people searching for a tradition, an ancestry in the past that has less to do with blood, and more to do with identity and train of thought.

That’s why I love Zinn and that book. I leave it to my partner to collect my work, when I’m gone, and to give it to our children and families to pass on to the future.

Michelle wrote:

what would have to be so different about the world for that to happen? nothing fundamental has to change. to come back to my issues with Zinn: when you set everything up as a dichotomy dialogue becomes impossible.

progressive vs. conservative
left vs. right
republicans vs. democrats

these things only exist because we have pitted them against each other. the only way they can interact is as categorical stands against the other. the irony being that these things over time have ceased to exist as entities onto themselves, with real definition or understanding of a role in the world, and instead exist only in opposition to the other.

i am a scientist, but bear with me. the solutions come from asking the right questions.
so: what does it mean to be a radical?  what is the root of marginalization? what is progressive, reall? conservative? left? right? these things need to be redefined so that they can be understood. and at the core of all that is the most important question, one that that can never be answered, but only grasped: what is truth?

Omar responded:

I actually agree with everything Michelle is saying. I stopped using the progressive term a few years ago. One of our biggest problems is that these labels became calcified and meaningless. We have to abandon these and move forward. Agreed…although, i’m not going to like people who claim that I have no right to live in this country. That’s not going to change no matter what i call myself.

Michelle responded:

from what you’ve said what you see and what you do comes as close to answering my core question as anyone can get. there is no objective “truth”. there is no one answer, one story, one paradigm. we should all carry it on ourselves to bear the burden of writing our stories, what we have witnessed, so that future generations can glimpse a whole that can only emerge from many, many voices.

and, i realize i may have come across as overly-critical in suggesting that blogging alone is not enough. because, i think your viewpoint “I’ve wanted to leave my voice for some future version of “me” to read and know that there were people, even in the early otts, who WERE certain things, WHO believed other things, that were as unique. I suppose that comes from having such a collision of cultural histories to deal with. I think that there are other people searching for a tradition, an ancestry in the past that has less to do with blood, and more to do with identity and train of thought.” is something for which the world should be grateful.

to ask you (or anyone) to “like” someone who vehemently disagrees with what one holds to be basic tennent of humanity is pointless- it comes back to the whole dichotomy issue and probably impedes forward progress. It was J.D. Salinger who said something along the lines of: “i’m sick of meeting people i like, i just want to meet someone i can respect”. what i would hope that you (Jaime) will take on, in addition to blogging, is creating some sort of room for respectful dialogue between people who don’t agree. we are being raised in a society where we are taught that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. well it doesn’t. the truth is in the eye of the beholder. the challenge we need to take on, and inspire future generations to take on, is to leave behind calcified labels and meet as respectful, peaceful trailblazers of a people’s movement.

idealistic? hell yes, but it doesn’t call for revolution. all it takes is people thinking about what they are saying, taking responsibility for what they say, and LISTENING to the other voices.