Goodbye, Columbus

22857294765_691521f89d_oIf I write it on my weblog, does that mean I have to go through with it? I’ve decided it’s time to start another beard … if only to hide the turkey wattles on my neck. Besides, it’s not like I have squat-all else to do with my time these days.

I’ve been thinking about statues and monuments. Statues of Christopher Columbus in particular. Yesterday’s great men are today’s embarrassments: genocidal colonizers, slaveowners, racists, rapists.

I remember first learning what a genocidal maniac Columbus actually was from historian Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” a book the right has been trying to ban for decades. As it relates to the current debate about taking down statues and monuments, driven in part by the right wing’s ongoing attempts to whitewash history through controlling what books high school and college students are allowed to read, I think it’s appropriate to re-post my 2014 review of “A People’s History”:


Read a representative sample of comments on Goodreads or any book review site and you’ll appreciate how polarizing “A People’s History of the United States” is. Readers tend to fall into two exclusionary camps: lovers and haters.

Zinn’s history has been the target of censors and book banners from its publication in 1980 to the present day. The ongoing controversy over “A People’s History” is what motivated me to read it.

As a child I believed my country was exceptional. That’s what I was taught; that’s what the adults I looked up to believed. Victory in WWII was still fresh and the economy was booming under Eisenhower, at least for families like mine. When I was still very young my father joined the US Air Force and we began to move around the country. I was exposed to families who were not like the ones I saw on TV, families who experienced a different American reality from the one I was taught. At an age when I was politically aware enough to know segregation was wrong and could not last, my father was stationed in Virginia and I was sent to a whites-only school. Shortly afterward I gave up believing in fairy tales and god. I started reading on my own, a habit I never successfully broke. I protested our early involvement in Vietnam, packed clothes and food for the Freedom Riders, helped a friend obtain conscientious objector status, joined SNCC. American history, to me, had begun to look not all that different from the history of any other country.

Which is to explain that I knew at least some of the untaught history of the USA before I ever picked up Howard Zinn’s book. Nevertheless, the factual information collected here is shocking. Even for an old cynic like me, the accumulation of sordid details is depressing. On and on Howard Zinn goes, relentlessly rubbing our noses in American history as it was experienced by the Indians, indentured servants, black slaves and freemen, the poor, the landless, the unprivileged, women, child laborers, the bottom 50%. Zinn frankly admits this was his express purpose in researching and writing A People’s History; if you accept his premise — that it is just as important to study history from the point of view of the oppressed as it is from the point of view of the oppressors — then everything he relates in this book follows. But damn, it’s depressing to try to digest it all at once, even if you appreciate the importance of what Zinn was trying to accomplish.

So it’s no wonder to me why an entire political camp — the American right — rejects Zinn’s book. The history it recounts, starting with the very first chapter (Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress; a chapter that is so shocking and disturbing that I suspect many conservative readers never progress beyond it) is incompatible with a belief in American exceptionalism. Or fairies. Nor is it a wonder to me that many on the American right would attempt to suppress this book, purge it from schools and colleges, and call for it to be banned outright. The attack on Zinn and his book follows familiar lines: the author is an America-hater and a Marxist; “A People’s History” is praised by Hollywood celebrities, championed by leftists, and taught by subversives; Zinn’s interpretation of history is meant to weaken American minds and pave the way for implementation of United Nations Agenda 21.

In 2009 at North Safford High School in Virginia, “A People’s History of the United States” was challenged as “un-American, leftist propaganda,“ even though it was not the primary textbook in that school’s AP history class and was taught alongside an article titled “Howard Zinn’s Disappointing History of the United States,” critical of Zinn’s book.

When Howard Zinn died in 2010, Indiana’s then-Governor Mitch Daniels emailed the state’s top education official. “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” he began. He went on to demand that A People’s History be hunted down in Indiana schools and suppressed: “It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?” In 2013, Daniels, now president of Purdue University, defended his earlier attempt to ban Zinn’s book from Indiana schools: “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools.”

In 2012, the Tucson Unified School District banned several books from local high schools. Prominent on the list of banned textbooks (still banned as I write this review) is “A People’s History.”

Just this year, in 2014, conservative school board members in Jefferson County, Colorado, proposed sweeping changes to the AP history curriculum. I do not know if Zinn’s book, or parts of it, is being studied by AP history students in Jefferson County, but the statements of the conservative school board members make me think Zinn’s book is on their target list: “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials, and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights,” reads the proposal, presented by conservative board member Julie Williams. “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.”

Needless to say, I do not adhere to the conservative camp when it comes to the suppression of thought or the denial of historical fact. Zinn’s history helps fill in the gaps in our education and gives us a necessary insight on American exceptionalism as it was experienced by the people we’d just as soon forget. I think it makes the thoughtful student a better and more patriotic American, able to appreciate how much we have actually done to wrest control of our country, and our history, from the one percent who would otherwise be totally in charge. But that’s just me.

With all that said, Zinn’s history, though well-written and researched, is a tough one to read, and might overwhelm people reading about the less savory parts of our nation’s history for the first time. It’s hard not to say to yourself, once or twice per chapter, “Gee, Zinn, would you lighten up a little?”


You may have missed it, but I included a link to the complete text of Zinn’s opening chapter on Columbus in my review. Here it is again. It’s not an easy read, but the truth, especially from the perspective of the oppressed, never is.

Never forget: the Americas were populated and settled long before white Europeans ever set foot here. Those statues of Columbus? Tear them down.

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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