Interview by Daniel Denvir
Historian Howard Zinn died in 2010. Today, he remains a model for left-wing intellectuals in how to both convey ideas to a public beyond academia and how to take direct action to transform the world.
Teaching at Spelman, a black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, Zinn supported and advised the student sit-in movement. During the war on Vietnam, he traveled to Hanoi to receive American prisoners whom the North Vietnamese had shot out of the sky. And he published A People’s History of the United States, a book that prompted many readers to, for the very first time, see the United States’s foundational myths of American innocence and meritocratic reward as lies.
As Eric Foner wrote in an obituary for the Nation, “Few historians managed to reach a broad non-academic audience. Those who do generally write monumental history, works that celebrate great men or heroic events. Zinn’s history was different. . . . Zinn’s public learned about ordinary American struggles for justice, equality and power.” Foner continued,
I have long been struck by how many excellent students of history first had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn. Sometimes, to be sure, his account tended toward the Manichaean, an oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and darkness. But A People’s History taught an inspiring and salutary lesson — that despite all too frequent repression, if America has a history to celebrate it lies in the social movements that have made this a better country.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, has written a foreword to a new edition of You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn’s autobiography. Daniel Denvir spoke with Taylor about Zinn’s life and legacy for his podcast the Dig. You can listen to the episode here and subscribe to Jacobin Radio, which hosts the Dig and several other podcasts, here.
DD: You write in your foreword, “The power of Howard Zinn the writer has overshadowed his fascinating history as an active participant in these powerful social movements.” What stuck out to you most about the various roles Zinn played across so many eras of the American left?
KT: Probably the two most interesting and perhaps most formative, for him, was the role he played in the civil rights movement and then his role in the anti-Vietnam War movement, which stemmed from his service as an air force bomber pilot in World War II. The former would probably be surprising to people, because most people are familiar with him through A People’s History. But that whole framework of A People’s History — to look at history from below — really comes from his participation in that movement.
Zinn was part of the on-the-ground, daily grind of the Southern movement that often gets eclipsed in our celebrations of Martin Luther King, our celebrations of the big marches, the spectacular confrontations. He was involved in many unspectacular confrontations. But you can see through his writing that the movement was really held together by the actions of ordinary activists, people who had everything to lose (including life itself), but who learned and weathered the ups and downs of what any social movement produces to really transform themselves and transform the South.
The South, after a period of time, could no longer maintain Jim Crow because black people refused to be ruled in that way. So he charts, in a very granular way, the process by which people go from being afraid to becoming aware that they are really the only people who can change their circumstance. That can come with great sacrifice, but it can also come with great heroism — and important lessons for those of us who deal with this question about social movements, how they work and what makes them effective.