Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Recommended (for a second time): Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States. And I give Michelle a copy of it

I’ve always been sceptical when folk talk of something changing their lives, a book, an encounter or whatever it might be, and I am not about to make a similar claim. But a few years ago, I did come across a book which slightly shifted my views on some things. It was A People’s History Of The United States by US historian Howard Zinn.

I have mentioned it before, in a blog post I wrote around six years ago when I first came across the book, but it is worth writing about again because it is a rather different kind of history. Zinn was avowedly and unapologetically left-wing. You can read up a potted biography of him here, but in brief he was a Jew from Brooklyn, the son of two immigrants who had a limited education but for whom Howard’s education was important. When he left school he became an apprentice in a shipyard and because of low pay and conditions there he became active in union politics. But it was World War II which gave him his chance of a good education and to make his way.

He served as a bombardier in the US army air force and after the war got a place at Columbia University through the GI Bill. He gained an MA and then a Phd and began teaching history. And it his take on history which makes him interesting. In his People’s History Of The United States, he criticises histories which view the progress of history from the points of view of kings and those at the top while ignoring the unnamed masses (and I have to say he puts the point far more elegantly).

So he tells the history of the US from the point of view of the indigenous people of the Americas massacred in their millions from the time of Christopher Columbus, of the millions of blacks brought over from Africa to work the land for the whites and the thousands of dirt-poor indentured whites who signed up for a number of years to work in ‘the New World’ in the hope of escaping poverty back home, only to find themselves once again at the bottom of the pile.

Like almost all revolution, the American Revolution which began in 1765 was pretty much a middle/upper class movement of those who resented having to send back much of the money they made ‘in the colony’ back to Britain. And unsurprisingly the great unwashed, the slum-dwellers of the new American cities – for conditions and overcrowding had become as bad in ‘the New World’ – were pretty lukewarm about supporting a revolt in which there was bugger all for them: it simply meant replacing one set of uncaring overlords with another, so why bother?

Now that is not the received view given – as far as I know – to US school children about the genesis of the United States. They – as far as I know – are instructed that the American Revolution was a blow for freedom and intended to throw of the yoke of British tyranny. Zinn disagrees. And I must say I find his interpretation far more convincing, given what I have so far learned of life and seen in my 66 years.

I would not want to give the impression that Zinn’s history of the US is some kind of leftie diatribe, because it is anything but: he writes well and clearly, cites contemporary source material, acknowledges that there are other historians who do not agree with him and, in my view at least, comes across as a man of integrity.

I mention it again (here is my first mention) because circumstance the other night reminded me of it. I have mentioned before that when I drive home to Cornwall from my four days of work in London, I stop of for a drink, a break and a smoke, so far usually at the Brewers Arms in South Petherton, but occasionally at the Taw River Inn in Sticklepath in Devon (which is only 40 miles from home). Because I have been stopping off for some time at both pubs, I have made the acquaintance of several regulars and will pretty much chat to anyone.

I was the Sticklepath pub the other night when I got talking to Michelle, a local probably in her late thirties. We talked this and that for a while before I ventured to ask her something specific. For Michelle is white but has unmistakable Afro-Caribbean features and I was curious. I asked her as tactfully as I could whether she had any Afro-Caribbean heritage. She did: her grandfather, who she never knew, was an black US serviceman who had been stationed locally on the edge of Dartmoor in the run-up to D Day. Her grandmother was a local Devon girl. I can’t now remember whether it was her father or mother who was the offspring of that coupling. Once the serviceman left Devon he never came back. Her other parent was a local.

I stress that I tried, and I hope succeeded, in being as sensitive as possible when I broached the subject and I’m glad I was because Michelle then went on to tell me how, as a young girl she had been teased about her looks at school and although there was nothing of complaint in the way she spoke, it soon became apparent that the teasing and being a little bit different had hurt her when she was growing up.

That is when I thought of Zinn’s book, and I told her about it, and especially of his account of the despicable way ‘freed’ black slaves were treated one the American Civil War ended until – well, as far as I am concerned, until the present day. It

You might perhaps subscribe to the view that all is now
sweetness and light for blacks since they were ‘freed’ after
the American Civil War. Here’s a reminder from the Fifties
that you might well be very wrong indeed

seems to me no coincidence that a disproportionate number of blacks (and now men and women of Latino and Hispanic origin) in the US are in jail, suffer mental health problems and are unemployed. And as Michelle was interested in reading it, I asked her for her address and that night, once I was home, I logged into my Amazon account and bought a copy, to be delivered to her home.

You reading this might have heard of Zinn’s book and you might even have read my previous entry. Either way, if you haven’t read it, I would urge you to do so, as it might change the way you view history as it changed mine.

. . .

I’ve been trying to track down my original post about how I came across Zinn’s book, but I can’t yet find it and it would be simply just to recount the how here again. I was on holiday on Ibiza (which is not all a drug den as many assume) and the weather was terrible: of the two weeks I was there we had innumerable thunderstorms and gallons of rain came pouring down. But I have to say that I didn’t really mind. For one thing I am not the kind who likes to lie gormlessly in the sun, getting red and hot, but also a break is a break is a break and you take it as it comes. If you start getting uptight about things, you’ve pretty much wasted your money taking a break.

The trouble was I had brought nothing to read with me. Wandering around the hotel I noticed a bookshelf in the communal area and went over to investigate it. All I could, at first see, as any number of bodice rippers, historical fictions by women called ‘Amber’ and the usual Jack Higgins crap. But then I noticed a volume which looked thicker than the rest. I pulled it out and took a look: it was Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States. And I began to read it. I have since re-read it once and ever since sending Michelle a copy I am re-reading it yet again.

Oh, and let me reassure you, I don’t think anyone who knows me has marked me down as some bleeding-heart lefty liberal.

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