Howard Zinn, Presente!

We lost a great mind and a great fighter today, Dr. Howard Zinn. Reading his great work, “A People’s History of the United States” as a high school student changed me forever.

When I graduated from college I bolted. I talked me parents into buying me a camping pack for graduation and took only what I could carry on a train and put miles behind me. I took two books with me, “A People’s History” and “Poetry Like Bread.”I devoured both during my days on the train and the weeks that followed when I worked as a farm hand and lived in a trailer on the edge of a sheep field. Zinn’s eloquent prose and clear ideas were captivating for a second time for me. More clear to me during that reading, though, was the clear-headed pursuit of the real story. As a teenager I saw Zinn as all badass. Reading him confirmed what I’d been asking and my conservative teachers had denied and belittled. The earth moved under me as I read about Indian removal, labor movements, abolition, and the anti-war movements that responded to every war the US has ever fought.

My second reading, undertaken after I finished the two-year long project that was required for my BA, was less memorable for the content as it was for the larger ideas. I left college with more questions than answers. I was demanding of myself a real solid answer to the one question that had haunted me for years when I first discovered Zinn: how are we going to fix the world? That second reading, as I worked on an organic farm and toyed with the idea that pulling weeds might be my role in things, was what put me on a Greyhound with my pack. It was what brought me to San Francisco. It was why I stopped when a woman on the street with a table asked me what I thought was necessary to fix the world and it informed the attempt I made to answer her. That conversation was the beginning of phase of my life dedicated to struggle.

When I started working with Darrell Lomax, an innocent man on death row whom I have written and visited for four years, I mailed him that copy. I haven’t replaced it because in the inscription I told him he should give it back to me upon his release. I’m confidant that it will be back on my shelf soon. Zinn pointed me towards the ideas I was so hungry for. He opened my eyes to the real history of struggle – the years of organizing, the defeats, the hard-fought victories.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. – Howard Zinn

I found the answer to my question. How do we win the world we deserve? We fight for it. And we stand on the shoulders of giants.


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