Welcome to week one of A People’s Readalong. A group of us (see the end of the post for the group, and please shout out if I’ve overlooked you) will be reading one chapter a week from Howard Zinn’s classic history book, A People’s History of the United States. We’ll be finished sometime in July.
This week we’re focusing on Chapter One: Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress. I’m going to start with an excerpt from the chapter. Please excuse the length, but I think it perfectly summarizes Zinn’s approach to history and the point of this book.
“My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.
Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments, and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don’t want to romanticize them, but I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: ‘The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it you will never know what justice is.’
I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilites by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win, I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather that in its solid centuries of warfare.
That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader might as well know that before going on.”
What surprised me the most is how not angry Zinn is. For some reason, I had expected a more militant stance. And while he’s certainly not excusing anyone, Zinn is holding true to his statement that “My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present.” Once I read this I will admit to a big sigh of relief. I’m not a fan of angry history. So this attitude, combined with his very readable style, is making this book seem like less of a chore than I initially anticipated it would be.
After Zinn presents his manifesto, so to speak, the first chapter focuses on Columbus, and breaking down the myth that he’s a shining hero who discovered the New World and paved the way for Europeans to colonize the Americas. Zinn presents the history that is often overlooked…how Columbus had a callous attitude toward the natives, and how the Arawaks (and later, other tribes across the Americas) were decimated through disease, greed, aggression, and slavery. And all the while, the conquerors were claiming that it was just a necessary sacrifice for progress and civilization.
I also read the first chapter in Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which provides excerpts from primary and other sources relevant to this chapter. There are excerpts from Columbus’s diary (which is a bit of a trip, since he either refers to himself in the third person or as the Admiral…he comes across as being a bit infatuated with himself) and the diary of Bartolomé de las Casas, who gives a first hand account of some of the atrocities perpetuated against the Arawaks and other natives. There are also excerpts from a modern novel written by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, in which he re-imagines Columbus arrival in the New World.
And if you can get your hands on a copy of the DVD, The People Speak, I really encourage you to watch it. Actors and musicians perform excerpts (of the excerpts) from Voices, Howard Zinn provides background narration, and there are hundreds of images interwoven through the presentations. It doesn’t follow the same order as the books (the Columbus chapter appears late in the DVD), but it’s fascinating to see and hear the words of Zinn and his sources brought to life. The man must have been a phenomenal teacher.
If you posted your thoughts on the first chapter, please leave a link in the comments. If not, no worries…just tell us what you thought in the comments!