Howard Zinn, People’s History and the Issue of Historical Objectivity

Howard Zinn, People’s History and the Issue of Historical Objectivity

This article analyzes the perspective and values of Howard Zinn, specifically in his acclaimed work, A People’s History of the United States (1980). By studying his narrative of American history, we can learn more about the process of studying “history from below” in a nation plagued with clashing histories and narratives.

In A People’s History of the United States (1980), socialist historian Howard Zinn famously recollects American history from an untraditional, yet incredibly important perspective – that of the oppressed and overlooked groups which compose (what Michael Harrington called) “the Other America.” In his portrayal of the nation, Zinn questions the validity of, not only those in power, but of the popular perception of statehood, national identity, and national objectives altogether. After spreading his message to millions of Americans upon the release of his work, Zinn helped publicize countless overlooked struggles and American atrocities. He helped disillusion Americans to our nation’s false image of unity and equal prosperity. Almost 40 years after its initial release, A People’s History of the United States remains a significant contribution to academia; one which deserves to be reviewed, analyzed and discussed by scholars and average Americans alike.

Ultimately, Zinn counters three common biases in the traditional perception of American history; nationalism, ethnocentrism, and a false belief in shared prosperity. However, these illusions are not presented as entirely separate problems. Instead, Zinn crafts an image of America with intertwining conflicts, histories, and perspectives; all merely manifestations of the greater battle – that over the preservation of hierarchy and the oppressive status quo. The following quotes are from the beginning pages of A People’s History of the United States when Zinn interrupts his narrative of Europeans first invading the Americas to explain and justify his perspective as bluntly as he can. By analyzing these quotes, we gain a more precise view of Howard Zinn’s social outlook and his incentives for writing this work.

“My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States … is that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interests between conquerors and conquered… dominators and dominated in race and sex.”

On the tenth page of A People’s History, Zinn begins to describe the immense impact which nationalism has in the common perception of American history and society. Throughout the chapters which follow, he demonstrates how certain events, such as the Boston Massacre are emphasized simply because they serve a role in the nationalist narrative of American history. Meanwhile, other significant atrocities, such as the 1637 massacre of 600 Pequot Natives, are overlooked because they expose deep intergroup conflict instead of creating a sense of national unity. However, as Zinn states above, the entire notion of national unity is ultimately an oversimplification of a society with complex dynamics of oppression.

This simplified view of society is orientated around the perspective of the powerful and the narrative which it produces conceals countless voices throughout history. It depicts America as racially, ethnically, and ideologically homogeneous – and thus inherently racist and exclusionary. Furthermore, the traditional narrative of American history teaches us to ignore those in need, perceive ongoing struggles as past oppression, and be content with the status quo which shaped this perception.

Therefore, Zinn encourages us to challenge traditional notions of national unity and question whether classical American history is indeed the history of all Americans. As the book continues, he makes similar assertions with the issues of national interests, arguing that such objectives are almost always conjured by the powerful and are often unrelated (or contradictory) to the well-being of most American citizens. In the process, Zinn dismantles the popular American perception of national unity by exposing the many overlooked struggles throughout American history which contradict the message of freedom and equality; social struggles which are crucial to a well-rounded understanding the nation yet are often excluded from our white-dominated history textbooks. The tenth page of A People’s History of the United States continues;

“Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees… and so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.”

In this paragraph, Zinn bluntly diminishes any last veil concealing his identity as a conflict theorist. Throughout the book, he continues to acknowledge his worldview to be a web of intergroup conflicts driving both progress and oppression. As is evident in this passage, he is also transparent about his preference to focus on the disadvantaged and oppressed. This is evident throughout the remainder of the book.

One could say that Zinn is contradicting a golden rule of many scholars, which is to strive for an objective viewpoint in your study. However, there is also reasonability in believing historical objectivity is impossible and Zinn is merely transparent about the type of biases which we all have, but often do not acknowledge. If the latter is the case, then Zinn is not only respectable for admitting his biases but for using them to publicize many of the overlooked ongoing American struggles. After learning a right-wing biased version of American history in school, A People’s History of the United States allows us to study a bias on the other side, and ultimately gain a far grander perspective of the nation’s past, present, and future. Zinn continues;

“My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run… the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.”

Although his conflict perspective is not deliberate, Zinn does try in A People’s History to emphasize certain groups which are not traditionally discussed. He justifies this decision here, citing his desires for, not grievance, but unity and intergroup understanding. When writing, he must have imaged the broad spectrum of interpretations which would follow the release of this book. Therefore, he stresses to utilize this understanding of our troubled history to build sympathy and unity – not anger and division. This is especially important for the victims of oppression who, as noted by Zinn, have turned desperate and divisive among one another. It is unclear if he was referring to a particular group, but the quote can be interpreted as society as a whole, with the oppressed being far more of the population than most realize.

After this quote, Zinn continues to explain his perspective before continuing with his narration of the early European conquest in the Americas. From there, the book enters a chapter titled “Drawing the Color Line,” which concerns the initial creation of race as it will be continued to be understood in America for the next 350 years. Already, from the first two initial chapters, readers are sucked into an ultra-realist version of American history – one which has been suppressed since the founding of the nation and boiling ever since. In the updated version, this quality continues through nearly 700 pages to the complicated election of 2001, which had a questionable outcome and enormous repercussions.

As we move forward with President Trump (and without Howard Zinn), A People’s History of the United States still serves as an urgent reminder of how American societal divides, now more apparent in the mainstream than ever, initially formed and developed into their modern iterations. I would strongly recommend reading to anyone seeking a greater understanding of, not only American history but the philosophical and social factors which drive our interpretations of history – and how these perceptions benefit some and disadvantage others.


Link to Zinn’s full text here

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