You Can’t Read That! Banned Book Review: A People’s History of the United States

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news.

Photo © Ruth Orkin

YCRT! News

I mentioned this Arizona story in a previous YCRT! post. Conservative school board members and parents in Gilbert, a Phoenix-area suburb, decided to cut (literally, with scissors) pages mentioning abortion from an AP biology textbook. In the November elections the conservative school board members were given the boot, but since they remain in office until January 2015 there’s still a possibility they’ll carry out the snippage. No problem, said Rachel Maddow, we’ll put the pages in question on the MSNBC website for anyone to read. Go, Rachel, go.

In a refreshing change from the way these things usually go, Alaska parents are challenging four elementary school history textbooks they feel are too sugar-coated.

That said, “both sides do it” is such a cliché, isn’t it?

Peter Sellars says the United States is flirting with censorship. He should know: the opera he directed, The Death of Klinghoffer, was partially censored by the Met after widespread protests.

The race to the bottom: a high school principal has directed teachers to obtain signed permission slips from parents “… for all books that are being challenged by district parents, have been listed on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Challenged Book List in the last decade or have been flagged for parental permission by the district’s literary selection committee.”

A parent in Pennsylvania challenged Jodi Picoult’s Ninteteen Minutes as inappropriate reading for high school students. Instead of looking for the book’s title on the ALA’s Top 10 Challenged Book List and automatically banning it, school administrators reviewed the book, held a meeting with members of the public, and elected to keep it on the school’s reading list.

Peachtown Elementary School in Aurora, New York, issues a manifesto: American History Should Not Be Sanitized.

And speaking of unsanitized American history …

YCRT! Banned Book Review

peoples historyA People’s History of the United States
Howard Zinn

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, we were posted to Virginia and I was sent to a whites-only school in a suburb of Washington DC. 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 copies of A People’s History in Indiana schools be hunted down and removed: “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, then 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 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?”

For further study: a few links relevant to the banning and suppression of A People’s History of the United States:

One thought on “You Can’t Read That! Banned Book Review: A People’s History of the United States

  • So proud of you for reviewing Zinn’s hidden history of America. And just when the report about CIA torture has been released. I mean, really, rectal feeding? Who are these guys?

    And now I think it’s time for you to take a look at Zinn’s video biography, “You Can’t Stay Neutral on a Moving Train,” available from Netflix.

    One thing you have to say about the man, he has never backed down from his principles.
    Reliza recently posted…Our Kind of PeopleMy Profile

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