Howard Zinn Interview
Howard Zinn discusses his book, A People’s History of the United States.
From: The Tavis Smiley Show, National Public Radio, Nov. 27, 2003
The Point of View of History
And so I felt that the American people, particularly the young generation going to school, was getting a very inadequate education about the American past.
Historical omissions regarding Native Americans
First of all, the treatment of our history with the Indians (the indigenous population) is a very weak and indequate treatment. I remember going to school and I would learn about Indians who came to Thanksgiving dinner gratefully. I would learn about Custer’s Last Stand, I would learn about Sitting Bull. There were a few moments in Indian history that we’d learn about. What we didn’t learn about was the fact that the American colonists that came here from the beginning were invading Indian soil and driving the Indians out of their land and committing massacres in order to persuade the Indians that they’d better move. And the history of the U.S. is a history of hundreds of little wars fought against the Indians, annihilating them, pushing them farther and farther onto a smaller and smaller piece of the country. And finally, in the late 19th century, taking the Indians that were left and squeezing them onto a reservation and controlling them.
This is a history that is not told in most American textbooks. The story that’s not told is the deceptions that were played on the Indians, the treaties that were made with them, the treaties that were then broken by the American government. It’s important to know that, because if you do, then you will become aware that the American government can lie. It can deceive people. It can do it not only in relation to Native Americans, it can do it in relation to all of us.
Historical omissions regarding African Americans
There’s been an improvement in the study of black history, but it’s still inadequate in that the point of view of black people is still very poorly portrayed. When you look at history from the standpoint of African Americans, everything really looks different. Our heroes are different. Andrew Jackson who is very often looked upon as sort of a democratic hero in our textbooksno, he was a slave owner. Abraham Lincoln, yes, a kind man, but he didn’t really move for emancipation until he was pushed by the anti-slavery movementthe black and white abolitionists. We talk about the progressive era in American history, in the early part of the 20th century, and we call it the progressive era even though that’s the time in which more black people were lynched in this countrythousands of themthan at any other period in American history.
Historical omissions regarding labor movements
When I was going to school, the economic development of the U.S. was presented sort of as a great triumphal march, a wonderful thing. The U.S. after the Civil War becomes a leading economic power in the world. And we’re taught about the great industrialists, about the railroad magnates, and about Rockefeller and Carnegie and Harriman and Hill, but what is left out of that story is the working people.
When I studied history in school, even up through the graduate level, I did not learn about the immigrants who worked on the transcontinental railroad, the Irish and Chinese immigrants who worked on that railroad and died in great numbers, long hours, sickness, overwork. I did not learn about the girls who worked in Lowell textile mills, went into the job at the age of 12, died at the age of 25. I didn’t learn about people who worked in Rockefeller’s oil refineries or in his coal mines or in Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills. I didn’t hear about the history of labor stuggle in this country. I didn’t learn about the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, or the Colorado coal strike of 1913-1914.
It’s very important for people to learn about the history of labor struggle because otherwise they would think that whatever gains the working people had made (for instance the eight-hour day) they would think that it came from Congress or the president. No. Whatever gains working people have made in this country have come from their own efforts, from their struggles, from their strikes, their boycotts, their facing off the police and the National Guard. It’s a very important lesson for people, because it’s not a lesson just for the labor movement. It’s a lesson for all of us. It tells us that if we are going to achieve any justice in this country, we are not going to get it from the initiative of the government. We are going to get it because citizens organize, get together, and they agitate and they demonstrate. This is what they did in the civil rights movement, and the movement against the War in Vietnam, the women’s movement, Native American movement. Citizens get together, they organize, they protest, they commit civil disobedience, they create a new atmosphere in the country, and then something changes. That’s the most important thing people could learn from a history of this country.
Question: “What do you say to those who might argue that someone like Howard Zinn is simply throwing a wrench into solid American history with his particular brand of scholarship? That he’s really just trying to rewrite history to reflect a liberal agenda?”
Howard Zinn: They’re absolutely right. [Laughter] I’m trying to rewrite history to reflect the point of view of those people who have been left out. Because the kind of history that we’ve had so far has been a history from the top, history from the point of view of politicians and generals and militarists and industrialists. And yes, I want to change that history to get an idea of what ordinary people have suffered and what ordinary people have done to change their lives.
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