After a busy night at the Duke restaurant, I went over to watch what was left of the State of the Union address with friends at the same house where we had gathered to watch the debates and the election night returns, which meant I was even later than usual getting home. When I got to my email, I found an alert telling me that Howard Zinn died today, at the age of 89. That he died on the day of the State of the Union seems somehow fitting.
I first learned of Howard Zinn through his book, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present. I was out of college (with a history degree) before Zinn’s book hit the shelves, but I remember one of my professors challenging the way history was taught, for the most part, because he said it was taught, predominantly, by the winners: those who won the wars got to tell the stories. History, he told us, was so much more. The real history of a nation was in the stories of everyday lives, in what people ate and drank and talked about, in what happened to the losers.
Howard Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants, fought in World War II, taught at Spelman College, was active in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement (alongside Daniel Berrigan): he was a man of passion, action, and deep resolve. He criticized his country because he deeply loved it. I love this description of Zinn by James Carroll:
Howard had a genius for the shape of public morality and for articulating the great alternative vision of peace as more than a dream, but above all, he had a genius for the practical meaning of love. That is what drew legions of the young to him and what made the wide circle of his friends so constantly amazed and grateful.
And that is why I’m taking time to notice that one of our most passionately burning lights has gone out: I have been inspired by his dedication, tenacity, and compassion, regardless of whether or not I agreed with him on a particular point. He was a man who trusted people, ordinary people, to grow and change. He is one who knew how to speak truth to power without becoming bitter or superior or cynical. Here he is, recently, talking with Bill Moyers.