You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.
Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove on:
Voices of a People's History

November 5, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

FOR MANY people, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was the first tip-off that they didn't tell us everything in history class.

Zinn's book tells the other side of the story--revealing the exploitation and oppression of the majority by a wealthy few--and the struggles of that majority for their rights and a better life for themselves and their families. First published in 1980, as mainstream politics in the U.S. was beginning to shift to the right, A People's History played a huge role in transmitting information about the left's history to a new generation.

Zinn says that ever since the book appeared, he was asked about the sources of his long quotations from people whose names rarely, if ever, appear in standard histories. Their words are the source of a new book, Voices of a People's History of the United States, compiled by Zinn along with Anthony Arnove.

The collection brings together dozens of selections from speeches, documents, published articles, pamphlets and more.

Some selections will be familiar to Socialist Worker readers--such as former slave Frederick Douglass' famous speech "The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro." But there is plenty of material that has remained mostly hidden and forgotten until the publication of this book. Plus, Zinn and Arnove go beyond a focus purely on political events to shine a light on how the other half have lived their lives in the U.S.--in particular, by adding poems, excerpts from fiction, and popular songs to their collection.

Here, HOWARD ZINN and ANTHONY ARNOVE talk to Socialist Worker about this wonderful new book.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

VOICES OF a People's History is meant to supplement Howard's previous book. What do you think will come across more strongly for people in reading the documents compared to the book?

THROUGHOUT THE years, readers of A People's History have said that they were most inspired by reading the words of the fugitive slaves, suffragists, abolitionists, workers, antiwar organizers and other voices quoted throughout the book. There is a power in these voices of resistance in U.S. history that no secondhand account can capture--and which all too often has been ignored or excluded in the history we learn in schools, and which we see the newspapers or on television.

How many students in schools actually read the words of Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglass, Helen Keller, Joe Hill, Tecumseh, Las Casas? And how many ever have the chance to read the speech John Lewis planned to give at the historic 1963 March on Washington, but which he was pressured to water down by the organizers of that demonstration? How many ever read Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech in the Riverside Church against the Vietnam War, or his remarkable address to the Southern Christian Leadership Council, questioning the economic system of capitalism?

These words--the documents we've gathered together in Voices--have a liveliness and a relevance that enlightens not only the past, but the present.

WHAT DO you hope people take from this book?

WE HOPE people take a number of ideas from this book. One is an appreciation that history matters--that it is not just a boring recitation of defeats or battles or the achievements of "great men," but that it is vital to understanding the world we are in today.

Another central idea we hope people will take away from Voices is the importance of class, which is so often overlooked or denied. Voices follows A People's History in presenting our history as one marked throughout by class conflict. The opening line of The Communist Manifesto could just as easily have served as the opening line of A People's History or of Voices.

The real opening line of Voices is actually a quote from Frederick Douglass that illustrates another central theme of the book: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress...This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both."

THE VOICES here are not the well-known figures you usually hear about in history books. What does this say about the way you view history?

HISTORY IS made by ordinary people, many of them unknown, despised, ignored, downtrodden, abused--but who had the courage to speak out, to act on their convictions. That's why we wanted to include not only the figures who are now widely recognized for their eloquence or their role in shaping U.S. history, but the records of anonymous resistance or the statements of people like Martin Delany, whose names should be better known.

We try in Voices to look at history from below. How did the 1930s look to a Communist in New York organizing unemployed workers and defending people who were being evicted from their homes? How did the conquest of the Philippines look from the standpoint of Black soldiers being sent to kill brown people abroad, while they face lynching at home?

These are the kinds of questions we asked, with the goal of correcting the record and challenging the triumphalist history we so often learn--as when George Bush recently cited the bloody invasion and occupation of the Philippines as a positive model for the occupation of Iraq. If you read Mark Twain's account of the massacre of Moros in the Philippines, which we have included in Voices, you come away with a far different appreciation for what Bush means.

WHAT KIND of response have you gotten so far?

WE HAVE been thrilled with the response so far to the book. First of all, a number of people have expressed enthusiasm for the idea of the book, commenting on how much they wished there had been an easy way to read the voices included in A People's History in fuller detail.

We have also been especially pleased with the response we have seen to the public performances we have organized based on Voices. In New York recently, more than 700 people came out to hear Lili Taylor, Paul Robeson Jr., Sarah Jones, Brian Jones, John Sayles, Leslie Silva and Wallace Shawn read selections from the book.

We hope others will perform their own readings from Voices--in schools, in theaters, in unions, in churches. And we also hope we can get the book into the hands of teachers who can integrate Voices into the classroom.

YOU INCLUDED several selections from musicians, like Bob Dylan and Public Enemy, as well as poems or selections from prose. Why?

WE WOULD have actually liked to have included more literary and artistic voices, more songs and poems, but the book is now more than 700 pages, and we had to cut some excellent texts to keep the book affordable (and portable).

Music has always been a part of people's history--a way people have popularized political ideas, and especially a way people have told their own histories. Both of us first learned about the Ludlow massacre not from a history book, but from a Woody Guthrie song ("Ludlow Massacre," which we include in Voices). Most history books leave out Ludlow, like so many other defining moments in U.S. labor history.

Music has often been a remarkable source of resistance. Today, for example, you have songs by Eminem, Public Enemy, Moby, Steve Earle and others challenging the war in Iraq. And on tour, Dylan is playing "Masters of War" again, with as much spirit and venom--and as much relevance--as when he first wrote it.

DO YOU have any favorites among the selections? Or anything that stands out as voices you're especially proud to have brought to the light of day with the book?

WE EACH have some favorites and some texts we are really happy to bring to a wider audience.

Tecumseh's speech to the Osages, Susan B. Anthony's remarkable protest against her arrest for illegal voting, the documents showing class anger in the Confederacy, Vito Russo's speech at an ACT-UP rally, Bob Dylan's memorial to George Jackson, and Frederick Douglass's speech addressing the war on Mexico and slave uprisings in the South are some favorites. But we hope readers will find their own surprises and favorites throughout the book.

Excerpts from the book

BARTOLOMÉ DE LAS CASAS was a contemporary of the explorer Christopher Columbus, whose writings reveal the barbarism of the European conquest of the "New World."

Whom will they spare? What blood will they not shed? What cruelty will they not commit, these brutal men who are hardened to seeing fields bathed in human blood, who make no distinction of sex or age, who do not spare infants at their mothers' breasts, pregnant women, the great, the lowly or even men of feeble and gray old age for whom the weight of years usually awakens reverence or mercy?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THEODORE PARKER was a radical abolitionist. In 1854, he urged a Boston meeting to defy the authorities who sought to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

I say there is one law--slave law; it is everywhere. There is another law, which also is a finality; and that law, it is in your hands and your arms, and you can put that in execution just when you see fit. Gentlemen, I am a clergyman and a man of peace; I love peace. But there is a means, and there is an end; liberty is the end, and sometimes peace is not the means towards it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

GENORA (JOHNSON) DOLLINGER was a socialist in Flint, Mich., who played a part in the great 1936-37 sit-down strike in the auto factories of General Motors that helped win unionization in basic industries in the U.S.

Following the strike, the autoworker became a different human being. The women that had participated actively became a different type of woman--a different type from any we had ever known anywhere in the labor movement, and certainly not in the city of Flint. They carried themselves with a different walk, their heads were high, and they had confidence in themselves.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

LANGSTON HUGHES was one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His 1951 poem "Harlem" foresaw the rise of the civil rights movement.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Voices of a People's History of the United States is published by Seven Stories Press and can be ordered from Haymarket Books. The selection by Genora (Johnson) Dollinger is from a pamphlet called Striking Flint and is also available from Haymarket Books.

Home page | Back to the top