Review: Howard Zinn's On Race

Post Author:
Howard Zinn On Race

On Race by Howard Zinn (Seven Stores Press) 239 pages

The late, great Howard Zinn (1922-2010) represents something anathema to the present-day American political-cultural mentality. He was a radical historian, something that seems oddly quaint in our retrograde conservative age. Going all the way back to 1956, when he became chairman of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta (the oldest black women’s college in the country), his approach to scholarship has always been outside the mainstream dialogue. He encouraged his students to become politically active in Jim Crow Georgia while teaching at Spelman, and at the same time he became a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement, almost by accident. He marched with Dr. King, participated in the founding of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and, eventually, was dismissed from Spelman for his politics. His leftist consciousness always felt like it first came from a place of genuine humanitarianism. Hell, he was a bombardier in WWII who later became a lifelong anti-war activist. What more beautiful statement is there than that?

Zinn believed in the concept of “the people united,” just as he believed there was actually a “people” out there who would take action against injustice. He seemed less robotic than other scholarly leftists, and his appeal and charm were strong enough that Zinn was adopted by the media in the seventies as one of the two token academic radicals allowed into the club, along with linguist and fellow political traveler, Noam Chomsky. In terms of intellectual heavy-hitters who also happened to be far-left thinkers, we’ve only had room for those two in the mainstream media for the past 40+ years. Being far less scruffy and intellectually unkempt than someone like Ward Churchill also goes a long way toward being more widely embraced by the bourgeoisie in general.
His magnum opus is a stunning page-turner called, A People’s History of the United States, and it forever altered the way working-class history was viewed in the U.S., but only up to a point. The scene in the Gus Van Zant film Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon tells Robin Williams to read A People’s History of the United States because “…it’ll knock you on your ass…” makes the point quite emphatically. Zinn’s work tells the story of the under-classes, the other layer of history. And while he sometimes had a limited presence in the mainstream media and was able to articulate an alternate view, they were only going to let him go so far; his work is too powerful and dangerous and far too nuanced to be allowed into the kind of discussions we now see on the dullard cable TV news-talk networks.
This excellent book works as an antidote to the media black-out of radical/progressive thought. It’s a collection of articles, opinion pieces, speeches and interviews, from 1959 to 2008, some in book form for the first time, which does a good job of presenting his approach to “history in the first person,” as well as his personal experience with the activist life. His everyday existence is the stuff of history texts, with chapters like “Out of the Sit-ins”, “Alabama: Freedom Day in Selma”, “Mississippi: Hattiesburg” and “The Selma to Montgomery March.” There’s also some insightful and accessible offerings of racially-minded political philosophy like “Kennedy: Reluctant Emancipator” and “Solving the Race Problem.”
Zinn’s time in the Jim Crow South must have launched some kind of wave of national acceptance in the culture just as it launched a wave of consciousness in him, because he went on to become a global figure; a luminescent human to some people in the Third World who read his work, he was one to whom people looked not so much for all the answers, but for the possibilities, and also the sense of calm in the middle of a hurricane that he seemed to carry with him. You really never hear anyone in the conservative media army, historians or pundits, criticize him, or even bother to critique his work. It’s a lose-lose proposition for them. “Radicals” like Rev. Jessie Jackson or Michael Moore represent the easy target, while Howard Zinn represented the elusive spirit. The right-wing machine can’t turn him into a cartoon-like buffoon or a social caricature. Maybe it’s the Kierkegaard-ian “understanding in reverse” effect that is precisely what makes it impenetrable.
Written in 1973, the opening paragraph of “Solving the Race Problem” reduces the beast to a manageable model. It could serve as an introduction to linguistics for conservatives, whose use of political language is, shall we say, highly suspect. “American liberalism was presented with a puzzle in the post-war period. For years the liberal argument had been to the effect that yes, the United States had a race problem, but it also had enough democracy, enough goodwill to solve it, and Americans were going about the job of doing so.” Let’s pause briefly there, in a couple sentences he not only frames the larger conundrum of race in America, he also helps explicate the monumental confusion surrounding the real meaning(s) of the word “liberal.”
Later in the essay he continues: “Why, then, suddenly in the mid-Sixties, after twenty years of reform in race relations, including Supreme Court decisions, congressional legislation, and presidential position papers and executive orders, did the black population erupt in riots and rebellions to the twin cries of 'Freedom Now' and 'Black Power'?” He uses the chapter to explain why the conundrum of race in America is so hard to get a handle on, let alone “solve.” “Yet the new laws, the court decisions, the new speeches delivered by the national political leaders on behalf of equal rights for the black man failed to solve the race problem, failed to still the growing anger in the nation’s black community.”
In the chapter entitled, “When Will the Long Feud End?” he offers an example of how to capture the truth of the under-classes by examining the roots of “white racism,” while also slamming the door on the conservative “argument of opposition” to any real understanding of race. He explains that even in the minds of many of the most ignorant white racists in our society the potential for change is always there: “We need to pay attention to these people with lives of frustration and unfulfilled dreams. Not to dismiss them if they are full of racial epithets. Not to doubt them if they say, ‘I am not a racist, all I want is…’”.
He sums up with a question about whether black and white people in America will ever get beyond the conundrum of race. At the same time he smashes one of the foundational myths of the country. “Will this hostility ever end? Not until black and white people discover together, the source of their long feud – an economic system which has deprived them and their children for centuries, to the benefit of, first, the Founding Fathers, and lately, the hundred or so giant corporations that hog the resources of this bountiful country.”
No one man can be an absolute in and of himself in this intricately infinite universe, and Howard Zinn’s work and life are a testament to what we can aspire to be: a little more tuned in to each other, and a little more open to receiving. His patience and humanity was something to behold, and his low-key persona had a compelling force underlying it. How did this guy stay the course for so long against such overwhelming political odds? How is it that in this world of constant political attacks no one ever says a bad word about Zinn? What did he find in himself that gave him such insight into reality that he could be so calm and radiate so much positive energy? Those are some questions we should take away from Howard Zinn’s life. He lives in all of us; he’s not just a relic Fox News can easily bury under the lies.