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Zinn Lives: Scholars Remember the Person Behind A People’s History

Howard Zinn is dead.  For Zinn himself, however, the news of his own demise may have scantly warranted a mention in one of his many books and articles.  If it did somehow make the cut, we can only imagine that Zinn would have written himself into the history books exclusively for the sake of exploring the responses of everyday people to his work while drawing attention to the causes he fought so diligently for.  Indeed, throughout his career, Zinn was one of the foremost critics of the very notion of a ‘big man,’ or even a ‘big woman,’ which historians have been so apt to (re)produce.  Yet ironically, in the process of championing the so-called ‘little’ people of history, Zinn himself became a giant in the world of academia, bringing all the people whose histories had been ignored, silenced, and suppressed along for the ride.

For those who knew him best, Zinn’s personal qualities and inner voice were what most informed his pressing fight for justice and equality both within the scholarly realm and beyond.  Author and activist Naomi Kline recently stated that “I don’t think he needed the official historians” implying that Zinn’s interpretation of history clearly flowed from his own personal biography and internal moral compass and was not confined to traditional historiographical debates.  Friend, publisher, and collaborator Anthony Arnove, in an interview with History News Network, echoed this sentiment when he observed that “early on Howard made a break with the norms of the field.”  For Arnove, this split was not necessarily informed by Zinn’s iconoclastic inclinations, but rather by the fact that Zinn’s workable knowledge of history was not primarily derived from his graduate studies at Columbia University but rather from and his education in political history from his fellow Civil Right activists and his learning of labor history from Woody Guthrie songs.

Yet Zinn never came across as aloof from his academic colleagues as he continued to be actively engaged in the profession, and appeared more interested in revolutionizing academia from within than he was at tearing it down from the bottom up.  Needless to say, the challenges he posed were not always warmly received by the historical “discipline” (a term which he thought symbolized the intellectual constrictions embedded within traditional academic partitions).  His critique of objectivity has continued to threaten many historians and his now legendary demand, in 1969, that the American Historical Association condemn the Vietnam War ended in the microphone having to be physically wrestled from his hands.  His efforts to encourage historians to be more actively engaged in contemporary social matters and let their personal values drive their scholarship has continued to meet with substantial resistance, but in the end, this will likely be remembered as one of Zinn’s most successful projects within the profession. 

Zinn’s revolutionary fire and fierce opposition to academic indifference never devolved, however, to the point of anger and contempt towards historians.  Instead, Zinn got organized and got busy.  After collaborating with Zinn at a Summer Institute project at Harvard University’s Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research designed to inform college faculty of the lasting legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Duke University professor Raymond Gavins remarked that on a personal level Zinn was “not only approachable but very open.”  This blend of human openness, intellectual generosity, and collaborative spirit consistently reappear as the universal themes governing Zinn’s life, and it were these qualities that his colleagues and admirers seem to remember him by.

In the last years of his life one of Zinn’s greatest joys was working on The People Speak, a full length movie featuring dramatic performances of primary source documents by world renowned actors and musicians including Morgan Freeman, John Legend, Matt Damon, and Rosario Dawson.   According to Anthony Arnove, who co-produced the documentary, Zinn relayed to him that he had not felt the sense of “collective solidarity and comradeship” that he experienced while working on the video “since he had been part of the Civil Rights movement.”  Although Zinn was in his eighties at the time, Arnove remarked that he was “energetic in a way that I was constantly struggling to keep up with.”  Like so many others who encountered Zinn personally, Arnove stated empathically that Zinn has “changed my life completely” and that he did so in ways that “[I] will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out.”

Few historians were closer to Zinn in his final years than Ray Raphael, who wrote A People’s History of The American Revolution, which received Zinn’s stamp of approval. Raphael described his friend to History News Network as “gracious to a tee — not from manners, but from his sense of shared humanity.”  As a friend, Zinn was always available to Raphael and his wife Marie with a “generous understanding,” especially after the tragic passing of the couple’s 26-year-old son.  Some years later when Zinn’s wife Roslyn died at the age of 85, after 63 years of marriage, Zinn became “zen,” according to Raphael.  Despite his clear grief, Zinn argued that his loss was nothing compared to Raphael’s, because as he reasoned, he and “Roz” had lived a “full, rich, and complete life together.”  Zinn finished by revealing to Raphael that he was now ready “if death should come.”

Zinn’s comfort with death, however, in no way diminished his fervent opposition to war and violence.  Despite Zinn’s excruciating back pain and his persistent vision problems he would always “go where he was needed,” according to Raphael, and spoke tirelessly for peace in his final years while never upstaging the work of his fellow activists.  He relentlessly challenged Raphael to help him imagine a different historical reality outside of war that might have peacefully solved the central conflicts of the American Revolution and the Civil War.  Zinn made it clear from his reading of history that no war was a good war.  He argued in a speech honoring the one hundredth anniversary of The Progressive in 2009, that war can never be ethically justified because “the means are horrible” but “the end is uncertain.”  Wars, he argued, have a tendency to backfire miserably and often create less desirable long term effects than doing nothing at all.   But Zinn did not advocate passivity.  He saw a clear model for social change and revolution in the largely peaceful methods used to topple apartheid in South Africa and the non-violent component of the Civil Rights struggle in America, of which he was so intimately a part.  The use of popular mobilization, civil disobedience, boycotts, and political pressure to bring about equality and justice were the moments in history that fascinated Zinn.  He told his audiences that somewhere “in between war and passivity there are a thousand possibilities.”  It were these possibilities that compelled Zinn in his final days and it were these alternatives to physical violence that he encouraged people everywhere to embrace.

Driven by this vocal activism, there is perhaps no other place that Zinn’s legacy will loom larger than in the tiny space that America seems to reserve for its public intellectuals.  Looked down upon by the academy and often ignored by the masses, the public intellectual in America underwent a substantial revival during the Zinn-era.  UC Santa Barbara Professor of Black Studies and fellow activist George Lipsitz gives Zinn substantial credit for this movement arguing that “he did more than any other historian to shape public appreciation of history from below.”  Zinn’s influence penetrated the broader American culture so deeply that Americans eventually found Marge Simpson reading a copy of A People’s History and watched the now famous, hip, yet brainy shout out to Zinn from Matt Damon in the Academy Award winning film Good Will Hunting (both references amounting to a kiss of death, according to some cynics).  Princeton University Professor of Politics and African American Studies Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who frequently dons her academic armor as a contributor to MSNBC, cites Zinn as a significant influence telling History News Network that she has been “deeply affected by his work.”  Indeed for Harris-Lacewell and other young public intellectuals, Zinn along with Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and Judith Butler have helped shape the idea that contemporary American scholars must be both intellectually engaged and socially active.

Zinn, however, never fell into the trap of promoting himself above his message.  As Anthony Arnove put it, the public accolades “did not go to his head” and “it never changed who he was” because “he understood how lucky he was.”  Long time friend and Boston University colleague Henry Giroux wrote in a recent op-ed piece in Truthout that “I never heard him interview himself while talking to others” and remarked that “everything he talked about often pointed to larger social issues.”  For Giroux and Arnove, perhaps the loss of their friend can in some small way be partially filled by a new generation of public scholars and activists who will find a way to challenge Giroux’s assertion that “the formative culture that produced intellectuals like [Zinn] is gone.”

Whether or not a new guard of Zinn-like scholar/activists will emerge to carry forward his mission, or if the culture will again shift in order to produce conditions ripe for their propagation, it seems by all accounts that Zinn will stand forever as a one-of-a-kind figure that occupies a very specific position in our collective memory.  The big question (that Zinn himself would likely never have answered, even if asked) was whether or not he ever momentarily set aside his egalitarian sensibilities in order to be fully aware of his own uniqueness.  William Cheek, Professor Emeritus of African American History at San Diego State University, seemed to find at least one shred of evidence to confirm Zinn’s profound, if not somewhat repressed, sense of his own station.  Cheek recounted a story that found Zinn, while visiting Paris, discovering a movie theater that exclusively screened Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, and that during a chance encounter in the subway Zinn “confessed” to Cheek that he was a sucker for such classic Hollywood flicks and was actually on his way back from what were becoming a series of late night showings that Zinn and Roz would attend.  In a statement to History News Network, Cheek offered an insightful parallel that may serve as an explanation for Zinn’s obsession by first noting of Fred Astaire that “we are not likely ever to see his like again” and then concluding that “I feel the same way about Howard Zinn.”  Perhaps then Zinn’s guilty pleasure was no accident and his infatuation was less of an outward gaze searching the screen for marks of greatness, but rather an unspoken attraction to the special performers who could project back to Zinn a confirmation of his own uniqueness.  We can infer from Cheek’s account that Zinn clearly knew an original when he saw one.  After all, the mirror (of cinema) never lies.

Like other cultural icons, the very figure of Howard Zinn has already in the weeks after his death begun to assume almost mythic proportions.  One of Zinn’s former students, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Alice Walker, went so far as to admit to Democracy Now that she somehow “felt he would live forever.”  In some ways Walker was right.  Even as the followers of Jesus, Elvis, and Tupac often doubt their respective guru’s death and claim to ‘see’ them after their reported passing, so too will Howard Zinn be seen, heard, and felt throughout the halls of academia as his memory reverberates within the hearts and minds of every brave soul who dares to take up a pen to write the history of everyday people.  Indeed, the very parts of himself that Zinn valued most will almost certainly escape the grave.  Although Zinn will likely forever be remembered as the man who wrote A People’s History of the United States he perhaps more significantly, and in spite of his detractors, may have written THE people’s history of the United States.  At least for now.