Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Different Kind of History

A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
first published in 1980; updated in 2005
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 stars

I loved this so much that I'm going to resort to hyperbole: If you read only one book about American history, let it be this one.

This is not a typical history book. Instead of telling the stories of the victors, Howard Zinn focused on those who have been oppressed in the United States. The minorities. The protesters. The downtrodden. 

In the preface to the updated edition about the Twentieth Century, Zinn wrote: "It is obvious in the very first pages of the larger People's History, when I tell about Columbus and emphasize not his navigational skill and fortitude in making his way to the Western Hemisphere, but his cruel treatment of the Indians he found here, torturing them, exterminating them in his greed for gold, his desperation to bring riches to his patrons back in Spain. In other words, my focus is not on the achievements of the heroes of traditional history, but on all those people who were the victims of those achievements, who suffered silently or fought back magnificently."

I listened to this on audio CD (read by the talented Matt Damon), and the edition focused on the events of the Twentieth Century, including the Vietnam War, the women's movement, the Civil Rights Era, the Clinton presidency and the infamous Bush v. Gore election of 2000. My favorite sections were about the 60s: civil rights, war protests, and the rise of feminism. The complete edition of People's History is more than 700 pages and starts back in 1492 (when "Columbus sailed the ocean blue...").

I first read Zinn's book back in the 90s, but I didn't fully appreciate it. Having more life experience and seeing how much power the rich and powerful really have, I got so much more out of this book this time. I've even referenced it in the sociology class I teach, because so many elements are still relevant.

In his afterword, Zinn wrote: "I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance." Sir, you have succeeded.

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