Someone posted this WWII-era Herblock editorial cartoon to Twitter and I shared it on Facebook. You can click on the thumbnail to see a larger version on Flickr. The caption reads “Naw — we don’t hafta worry about th’ owner comin’ back, he waz killed in Italy.”
I went to high school in California in the early 1960s. State, national, and world history were all required courses, but never once did we hear or read about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, nor the confiscation of their farms, homes, and businesses — a shocking chapter of American history that had happened less than 20 years before.
In my entire K-12 education, I learned only the bare facts about slavery and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (I remember a sixth-grade teacher telling us the Civil War was not about slavery, but states’ rights). The civil rights movement was in full swing by the time I was in high school, and although I began to learn about Jim Crow laws, segregation, and all the myriad ways white America suppresses its Black population, that learning didn’t happen at school. I learned through newspapers and the nightly news.
School did teach us about a thing called “manifest destiny,” but our lessons didn’t include the Trail of Tears and the attempted genocide of Native Americans. We learned nothing about Roosevelt’s refusal to accept European Jews trying to escape the clutches of Hitler. Even though a quarter of the kids in my Sacramento high school were Mexican-American, we were taught nothing about Mexico’s role in California history, never mind repeated federal and state attempts to round up Mexicans and expel them. There were Indians in California before Mexicans and white settlers? Who knew?
When I was in school, critical race theory hadn’t been invented … but it was definitely banned.
Today, right-wingers* from coast to coast are trying to outlaw critical race theory — the teaching of actual American history — in schools and colleges. They don’t just want to paper over our shameful history of slavery and continuing oppression of Black Americans. They want to keep kids from learning what we did, and continue to do, to every other minority. They’ve been trying to keep kids from seeing the true face of America forever, long before anyone ever called it critical race theory. It’s the same old shit. It’s what they’ve always been up to.
*I originally typed “conservatives” but struggle with the label. Part of me still believes there’s such a thing as principled conservatism, divorced from racism, know-nothingism, jingoism, Trumpism … the things so many lazy commentators characterize as “conservatism” today. Until I come up with a label that expresses what I mean, “right-wingers” will have to do.
This seems an appropriate time to revisit my review of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and to recommend it to fellow patriots — Americans who care about their country and want to build a better one for all of us.
A People’s History of the United States
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. It’s what we were taught; it’s what the adults we looked up to believed. Victory in WWII was still fresh and the economy was booming under Eisenhower, at least for white middle class families like mine. When I was still very young my father joined the US Air Force. We spent three years in Germany in the middle 1950s. The military was newly integrated. So was our American school on base, where I first became friends with kids whose families experienced a different American reality from the one my sisters and I had known before. Later, at an age when I was politically aware enough to know segregation was wrong and could not last, Dad was posted to the Pentagon and I was sent to a segregated whites-only school. That was around the time I gave up believing in fairy tales and god. I started reading on my own, a habit I never successfully broke. By 1965, when I was a freshman in college, I was protesting our early involvement in Vietnam, packing clothes and food for the Freedom Riders, helping a friend apply for conscientious objector status, joining 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 mass of factual information collected here is shocking, even to an old cynic like me. 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 so shocking and disturbing I suspect many right-wing readers never progress beyond it, and that you can read right now by clicking on the title, above) is incompatible with any notion of 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 the familiar formula: 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 wasn’t the primary textbook in that school’s AP history class and was taught alongside Howard Zinn’s Disappointing History of the United States, which is 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, by 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.
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, was being studied by AP history students in Jefferson County, but the statements of school board members suggest Zinn’s book was at least one of their targets: “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials, and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority, and respect for individual rights,” read the proposal. “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 firmly oppose the suppression of thought and 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 know-nothings who’d otherwise be 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 those first learning the less savory parts of our nation’s history. 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:
- Indiana’s Anti-Howard Zinn Witch-hunt
- A People’s History Banned in Tucson Schools
- Students of Jefferson County Colorado Give the Nation a History Lesson
- Howard Zinn’s Biased History
© 2021, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.