A Conversation With the Zinn Master

(Originally Published in Zmagazine, September 2007)

A Young People’s History of the United States
Gabriel San Roman Interviews Howard Zinn and Rebecca Stefoff

When Howard Zinn first published A People’s History of the United States 27 years ago, it challenged traditional historical narratives of U.S. history by focusing on the people and not the powerful. Zinn’s work was groundbreaking as an antidote to the U.S. history that had been taught for so long in our public schools. Unfortunately, teachers and parents who sought to bring Zinn’s social perspectives to young people have been at a loss, until now. Rebecca Stefoff has adapted Zinn’s history book to create a two-volume set for young adult readers ages 10-14 called A Young People’s History of the United States. The books are complete with full-page illustrations, a glossary, and primary sources. Volume One takes young readers through the days of Columbus to the Spanish-American War of 1898. Volume Two covers the class struggles of the 20th century and ends with the present so-called war on terror. In the introduction to the first volume, Zinn writes, “We should be able to tell the truth about people whom we have been taught to look upon as heroes, but who really don’t deserve that admiration.”

SAN ROMAN: History is an extremely unpopular subject in schools across the U.S. What can your new volumes do to reverse that perception and why do you think that perception exists?

ZINN: The reason history is unpopular in schools is that it’s presented as a rather dull succession of dates and events to be remembered so that young people can pass the tests that they need to get into college, to get good grades, and so on. Generally, the excitement of history and the nature of conflict in history are missing. In other words, the elements of drama are missing. In fact, history is very dramatic. It is a matter of conflict between classes, races, nations, dissenters and the establishment, and when history is presented in terms of conflict, students can decide which side they are on. They can participate. It becomes more interesting.

Also, the students and young people become more interested in history when they have heroes they can really respect, not the usual heroes, not just the presidents, the generals, the industrialists, but the people who are closer to the ordinary even though they may become leaders of movements. They can respect heroes such as black people who come out of ordinary circumstances, but become leaders of a social movement. They can respect heroes such as working people who then become labor organizers, women working in the mills and factories who go on to become union organizers and radicals. I think these are the heroic people that are easier for a young person to identify with than people whose achievements and whose standing goes far outside the possibility for ordinary people. I think there is room for a different kind of history for young people.

Rebecca, what factors and objectives did you take into consideration in the course of adapting A People’s History to a book for young people?

STEFOFF: I decided that the only way I could do it was to leave Howard Zinn’s perspective, his distinctive take on history and especially his unique voice, intact. It didn’t make sense to think about reframing his book in the kind of value-neutral way that history is often presented to young people. There are good reasons for that approach, but it doesn’t have to be followed in all cases. There should also be room for passion and advocacy and for views of history that depart from the “official” versions.

What makes Howard’s book so special is that it has passion and a particular purpose and point of view, but he isn’t sneaky about it. He says in the beginning, and throughout the book, that he is writing a different kind of history. He also writes about the challenges and pitfalls of writing history, which is something that is often glossed over in books for kids. I felt that it was not only possible, but actually necessary to keep his perspective and tone intact, even though I knew that some things would have to be condensed, or simplified, or explained to make them accessible in a book for young adults. Fortunately, the publisher was absolutely committed to producing a young-adult history that was not just “based on” Howard Zinn’s book, but was that book, as much as possible. I was able to leave a lot of the story in Howard’s own words. The biggest challenge was having to cut a lot of material. I agonized over the anecdotes and quotations that didn’t make it into the final manuscript. But I knew that Howard would review everything and correct me if I went off track.

Howard, mainstream history certainly has a tradition of heromaking, in particular with regard to figures such as Christopher Columbus. What do you say to those who complain that a nuanced view of history tears down traditional heroes that youths need in order to be inspired and interested in history?

ZINN: I agree that young people need heroes and people to emulate. The question is should they be taught to emulate people like Columbus who killed, kidnapped, and enslaved Indians in pursuit of gold? Should they be asked to emulate the founding fathers even though they were slaveholders? Should they be asked to look upon as heroes people like Andrew Jackson who massacred Indians or Theodore Roosevelt who loved war and who approved of the killing and massacring of Filipinos at the turn of the century? Instead of Columbus give them las Casas who exposed the crimes of Columbus. Instead of Andrew Jackson give them the Cherokee Indians who resisted their expulsion. Instead of Theodore Roosevelt give them Mark Twain, Helen Keller, or Eugene Debs who opposed the Spanish-American War and the Philippine War.

How does A Young People’s History highlight the stories of traditionally excluded communities in the U.S.?

ZINN: You are absolutely right that for people of color, women, and working people, they are not likely to find themselves represented in history. What A Young People’s History does is bring into the light the black members of the abolitionist movement, as well as the labor organizers and radicals. A Young People’s History gives women their due by telling about the work of women who organized the textile workers in New England in the 1830s and the women coming out of the abolitionist movement before the Civil War. The book also highlights great women labor organizers like Mother Jones and the women of the organizing struggles of the 1930s. Emma Goldman gets no mention in traditional histories, but she was a prominent figure as a feminist and anarchist.

Rebecca, does the book seek to differentiate itself from the massive history textbooks that weigh young people down in school?

STEFOFF: Some characteristics of Howard Zinn’s book lent themselves very well to adapting the book for young people. For one thing, Howard made a lot of his points through stories-episodes in the lives of real people, often told in their own words, as well as extracts from songs, poems, and letters. I tried to keep as many of those in the text as possible. One way that the young readers’ version of the book differs from other history books is that it is not an abstract, generalized summary or overview, but rather a patchwork of experiences and voices. We also added a lot of subheads. Although we thought a glossary would be helpful, we stayed away from the apparatus that goes with most textbooks-lists, questions, study guides, and the like. The idea was to encourage kids to approach the book as a narrative.

Howard, Volume One spends considerable time on the American Revolution. Familiar events such as the drafting of the Constitution and the Boston massacre are mentioned. But your book differs from other educational texts in terms of contextualizing such events using a class analysis. Why is class analysis so taboo in our nation’s schools and conversely how important is it in understanding historical events?

ZINN: Class analysis is taboo because both our culture and our educational system are built around the idea that we are one big happy family. They are built around the idea that there is no difference of interests between us and the people in charge. Since the beginning, America has been a class society divided between rich and poor, landlord and tenant, slave owner and slave. It is also misleading to give young people the idea that all the colonists were united in fighting against England. They were not united at all. Poor people had to be conscripted. They had to be made promises like the recruiters of today who give bonuses to young people in order to join. The class divisions that had existed before the American Revolution in the colonies were present during the Revolution and right after the Revolution. There were rebellions against the people who were in charge of the new government as in the case of Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts in 1787. Without class analysis, you don’t understand conflict and you are misleading young people about the complexities, about the government and the people, and the difference of interests which always exist. The government has to deceive people with slogans in order to create the notion of a common interest with the people in charge of the government.

A Young People’s History doesn’t hold back in terms of retelling the violent atrocities that have occurred in U.S. history. Is the argument for age censorship in terms of such violent histories really more about the challenge it poses to the patriotism of establishment history?

ZINN: I have no doubt that the indignation about telling young people about the atrocities, the violence, the lynching, and the massacres of Indians has a political motive. Young people are not innocent of violence. I mean on our television screens and in movies, our young people are exposed to a huge amount of violence. It is not that they have been spared violence and then are suddenly brought into a world of violence. Presumably, what these people really care about is not wanting young people to hear about the massacres of Indians or the lynching of blacks or the murder of strikers. It’s not that they want to protect young people from violence. They want to protect them from understanding what has happened in this country; what has happened to Native Americans, what has happened to blacks, what has happened to labor organizers. In traditional history, young people learn about wars and violence, but they learn that the United States has done only good in the world, winning wars and so forth. Actually, in these traditional stories, we have spared the massacres that U.S. soldiers have committed abroad, whether it is in the past or with the Iraqis today.

How does the de-emphasis of social movements in establishment history play into not only apathy about the past, but apathy in terms of active civic engagement in the present?

ZINN: When traditional history is presented based on the doings of important people, when history is the story of presidents and military leaders, the actions of Congress and the Supreme Court and the economic titans of history, when it is presented that way, the idea is supplanted that there is nothing really for ordinary people to do in making history. Great people will do it. All we have to do is go to the polls every four years and elect another great person. The point of presenting a people’s history is to show that, in fact, you cannot depend on the people in authority to solve problems of injustice or to stop wars. A people’s history encourages people to take their place as citizens in society. It encourages them in the task of changing the social norms.

What advice do you have for teachers who wish to teach the lessons of A Young People’s History, but might be intimidated to do so?

ZINN: I can understand that teachers, might be intimidated because they are up against an establishment that doesn’t want young people to be taught the kind of history that might make them dissidents or rebels in society. But I think teachers should understand that their teaching will not be meaningful for them and that their teaching will not be interesting to them if they do not break away from traditional history. Sure they will be taking risks for promotions, for salaries, and of being labeled a radical. But if you do not take those risks, then you are giving up your freedom to teach. You are giving up what is fundamental to any teacher and that is to be honest with your students about what you believe.

Rebecca, the New York Times, in a review of the book, accused Howard Zinn of “depressive progressivism” while at the same time noting his goal of inspiring idealism in young people. How do you respond to such criticism?

STEFOFF: To me, Howard’s view of history is not one of nay-saying, hero-bashing, or negativism. It’s one that challenges the reader to look below the surface, ask unpopular questions, and remember and be inspired by the best that Americans have done, and the often surprising ways they have found unity and power. It seems patronizing to think that young adults can’t handle more than one version of history, or that they can’t decide for themselves whether what Howard Zinn offers is meaningful. If they get nothing else from the book other than the awareness that there are competing interpretations of history, that is a valuable thing to have learned.

Howard, the New York Times review also accused you of oversimplifying history. How do you respond to this?

ZINN: The charge of oversimplification is interesting. I believe, on the contrary, that traditional history simplifies. In traditional history, Columbus is a hero, period. There’s nothing negative about that in traditional history. Andrew Jackson is a hero. Woodrow Wilson is a hero. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. In traditional history, America is a story of great progress, of America doing good in the world and winning wars. To my mind, that is a very simplistic approach. History is not simple but complex when you introduce the idea of class conflict. It becomes complex when you introduce the idea that you cannot depend on the establishment to solve social problems and that people’s movements are necessary. Abraham Lincoln becomes a more complex figure. Theodore Roosevelt becomes a more complex figure. These are not simplifications.

The person behind the charge of simplification has a political agenda. The political agenda is that the person who charges simplification simply does not like what A Young People’s History says about our traditional heroes and what our policies are.



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