I never was much interested in history in school. Lifeless statistics and summarized events were never particularly appealing to me. It should have been though, because I love great stories and history is full of them, the fact they are real should have been all the more astounding. The thing is, the famous people were boring and the “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” is not the most interesting way to get information about an event.
Nowadays, I am enjoying history more and even reading a history book! Non-fiction! It’s crazy! I’m currently reading “A People’s History of The United States” by Howard Zinn, and it is opening my mind.
See, another thing about the history we learn in early schooling is that it feels so sanitized. We don’t learn the horrors or atrocities that were committed (unless they were committed by non-americans), only the end results. That’s why this book is really compelling. Zinn gives voice to the voiceless of the past. He tells the story of Columbus from the side of the natives, slavery from the voice of the slaves, and the industrial revolution from the side of the poor. He tells the truth about the “founding fathers”, who wanted the poor to revolt but in a certain way, without too much ‘property damage’. He tells the story about the Native Americans, being told to move again and again, always with more promises of being left alone that were never fulfilled. The story about the American elite pushing the poor to revolt but in a certain way, so that not too much property was destroyed, how the American elite took the land from the British loyalist and divided it up amongst themselves, making the revolution quite a wealthy endeavor for the elites who never had to risk their lives during the war. Zinn tells about the terrible conditions for the working poor throughout the beginning of America, how Unions were formed to fight 14-hour work-days and awful working conditions in factories. He talks about how Socialism rose out of this and was rather popular back in the day, because of how much the wealthy were taking advantage of the workers, in every setting and situation.
I’d never learned about how much class conflict there really was throughout America’s history. You really see why Unions are important and why they were formed in the first place. You also see how depressing the true story of America’s history is. The history of America is about the wealthy and powerful attaining as much wealth and power as possible, while giving the disenfranchised poor just enough so they will not rise up and revolt. It’s sickening to see how people treat each other. How the only consideration people seemed to have (and still do), is for acquiring more and more wealth. We are a nation, even a world, of ME ME ME ME ME. All that matters is me and mine, my stuff.
Zinn uses statistics and logical reasoning for his telling of America’s history, along with many documents written by those who lived during the period. Newspaper articles, speeches, letters, other historian’s research, etc. to tell the story of our history from a large variety of viewpoints. One paragraph near the beginning really stuck with me and tells you the kind of historian Zinn is.
“My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization…)-that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth….The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole….My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different...Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest...between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners...Thus, in the inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson, as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans….And so on, to the limited extent that any one person...can “see” history from the standpoint of others.”
I could go on. I’ve dog-eared many a page in this book simply so I can go back and find certain passages that I found myself really invested in. I love this book because it feels as though I am truly learning about the history of the United States, facing the past of what has been a country filled with violence and brutality but also filled with those who fight and rise for the betterment of their fellows often times against tremendous odds in dangerous situations. It’s depressing but enlightening, at the same time.
I am not yet finished with it, barely halfway through the large volume, currently reading about the early 1900s, Unions forming and the idea of Socialism growing. I am sure I will have more thoughts on it after I finish, which I will put up here. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about our nation’s history.