Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have edited a first class reader to go with Zinn's earlier narrative, A People's History of the United States, which was first published in 1980 and has gone through several revised and updated editions. This reader is an excellent collection of primary source documents drawn from: diaries, poems, songs, speeches, letters to the editor, testimony before congressional committees, official investigations of disasters, etc. that for the most part have not gotten into the official versions of what has happened in the American past.
Zinn, the principal author, does not hide his perspective. In fact, he openly announces it in a stirring introduction.
He tells us, "When I began work, five years ago, on what would become the present volume, Voices of a People's History of the United States, I wanted the voices of struggle, mostly absent from our history books, to be given the place they deserve. I wanted labor history, which has been the battleground, decade after decade, century after century, of an ongoing fight for human dignity, to come to the fore. And I wanted my readers to experience how at key moments in our history some of the bravest and most effective political acts were the sounds of the human voice itself.
"To omit or to minimize these voices of resistance is to create the idea that power only rests with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth, who own the newspapers and the television stations. I want to point out that people who seem to have no power, whether working people, people of color, or women-once they organize and protest and create movements-have a voice no government can suppress."
He is on the side of the people of struggle who worked for peace, labor justice, unions, women's rights, civil rights, civil liberties against the forces of capital, the state, the status quo, the powerful and the privileged. This is not the sort of book that the Republican National Committee wants you to read.
This is the book that you need to read if you have never heard of, or else perhaps, forgot: Bartolome de Las Casas, Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, Emma Goldman, Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, or Vicky Starr.
It is also the book to read, if you want to go beyond the public images and official portraits of people like: Mark Twain, the novelist and critic of war and imperialism; Helen Keller, fighter against physical handicaps and vigorous socialist; Smedley Butler, Congressional Medal of Honor winner and outspoken critic of imperialism and gun boat diplomacy, or Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion and opponent of the Vietnam War and military conscription.
Zinn is a master writer and the author of over a dozen books on all aspects of American history. He writes with style and verve. His facts are lined up and well marshaled for his arguments. He writes without fear and with research. His humanity is reflected on every page, as he reminds us that people make history and they do make choices. His voice is consistently clear and honest, whether he is discussing the better-known champions of human progress or the unknown and forgotten.
One minor comment, perhaps unfair, he has had to choose what to include, and that entails what to exclude. He does not mention Margaret Sanger, the pioneer and champion of a woman's right to control her own fertility. Nor is there much coverage of the environmental movement. (And where is Rachel Carson and Silent Spring?) With a book surging over 650 pages, he still manages to cover a lot of fertile ground.
This book belongs on the desk of every high school and college teacher in America. Every union organizer, every civil rights worker and every anti-war campaigner should have a copy of this book and the original narrative. People need to be reminded that we do not struggle alone. We need reminders that others have gone on before us, indeed we stand where we do because we stand on the shoulders, not of gods or goddesses, but of brave men and women.
The United States of America is not an evil or an exceptional country. It has a rightful place in the family of nations. To take that rightful place, it will need well-educated citizens, who know their history. Howard Zinn's work helps us know that history, warts and all. He gives us a mirror to see ourselves accurately with our virtues and our vices in clear focus.
I can not say the same for most textbooks and surveys produced by the mainstream publishers. For more information on that question, see the excellent, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: the New Press, 1995), by James W. Loewen.
Zinn's book is not in that category.
Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have given us an excellent written collection of documents to examine. We owe it to them, to ourselves, and to our students to read it!
The teacher's guide prepared by Gayle Olson-Raymer, editor, and her colleagues, is an excellent collection of different strategies and lesson plans to help both the beginning and the veteran classroom teacher utilize the Zinn text and the Zinn/Arnove reader. Each unit has: a set of document based questions; a listing of chapter main points; discussion questions for classroom conversations; and three types of evaluation tools, with suggested assignments, essay questions and finally, simulations and alternative/creative approaches. Most teachers will benefit from the suggestions offered.
John J. Fitzgerald is a retired, Longmeadow (MA) High School, social studies teacher and department chair. He served in the U.S. Army, as an infantry platoon leader, during the Vietnam War. He was wounded in action and was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart. He joined the anti-war movement in 1967 and supported McCarthy for President in 1968. He was one of the earliest members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He has been active in a number of progressive causes and programs including: civil liberties, anti-death penalty work, and assorted political campaigns. He is one of the co-authors of: The Vietnam War: A History in Documents. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.) He lives in Longmeadow and serves as Chairman of the Registrars of Voters.