Remembering Howard Zinn

When enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.

This pass January 27th was the second anniversary of the death of historian and social activist Howard Zinn. A remarkable and energetic figure within a wide number of social justice issues – civil rights, workers’ rights, pacifism – he sadly doesn’t receive as much widespread recognition among average Americans as he does among academics and humanitarians (although his written works seem to be getting more popular). Whatever the case, given his selfless and life-long devotion to the plight of others, I doubt this would matter all that much to him.

Noam Chomsky, a fellow activist and personal friend of Zinn, wrote a touching and informative remembrance piece on Al-Jeezera, noting that:

His primary concern, he [Zinn] explained, was “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of “those great moments” that enter the historical record – a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma. His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews. It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments. That was true when he was an industrial worker and labour activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

As a history buff, I certainly appreciate the value of giving a voice to the millions of average but forgotten people that made crucial contributions to human progress. This dedication to the common man (and woman) is what made Zinn a great and exemplary figure, whatever one thinks of his politics.

In that regard, I highly recommend his best-known work, A People’s History of the United States, which represents the many perspectives of our nation’s narrative that never get much, if any, sincere attention. It pretty much encapsulates Zinn’s overall message of valuing the contributions of society as a whole, rather than of only triumphal or famous figures. It may be a bit too leftist for some, but it presents an important alternative to consider. Given my own adherence to the ideals of dialogue and discussion, it very much resonates with me.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.

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2 comments on “Remembering Howard Zinn

    • Ditto. I can value the work of people who may be of a different school of thought but who nonetheless make a valuable contribution. It speaks volumes of your integrity and open-mindedness that you’re receptive to other perspectives on history ;)

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