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Zinn and the Art of History

by BRIAN McKENNA

Six days after Howard Zinn’s death on January 27, I asked my class of forty-seven Introduction to Anthropology students about Christopher Columbus. “Take out a piece of paper and respond to this scenario. You are the Director of Community Theater here in Dearborn, Michigan and you decide to produce a play on Columbus’s life. Describe one scene in your play. Why that scene? Be as detailed as possible.”

Of the 47 students, a full 40 (84%) depicted some version that praised Columbus as a great mariner who “sailed the ocean blue” and “discovered” America. One said he landed on Plymouth Rock, another that he addressed the US Congress.

Only four noted that there was murder and enslavement involved, though no scene was explicitly described. The three others said that there was violence but they knew little more. It was all cloudy and vague. No one used the term “genocide.”

I greatly suspect that comparatively few U.S. college graduates know many of the details about what happened.

I tremble as I write

I learned about Columbus’s genocidal activities from Howard Zinn (1922-2010) who, in his telling, introduced me to his chief source, Bartolome de las Casas, America’s first “cultural anthropologist.” A Spanish priest, Las Casas (1474-1566), told the truth (as he knew it) about Columbus’s invasion of the Americas in his insurgent, History of the Indies (Las Casas 2007 (circa 1552). He risked his life to do so.

In his magisterial “Peoples History of the United States” (1980) Zinn carefully relayed las Cases’ eyewitness accounts on how Spanish soldiers killed hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of Arawak, Taino and other native peoples through torture, beheadings, forced labor in mines and slicing the hands off of those children who did not uncover the required quota of gold during their allotted three month period. Here’s Las Casas:

“Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides . . . .they ceased to procreate. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation . . . .In this way, husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk . . . and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile . . . was depopulated . . . .My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write . . . .Who in future generations will believe this? I myself writing it as a knowledgeable eyewitness can hardly believe it . . . .” (Zinn 1980:7)

Many still do not.

It took about 400 years for Howard Zinn to effectively rebroadcast Bartolome’s ethnographic accounts to a world-wide audience prompting outrage, reaction and horror. And yet, too many US citizens have yet to engage this vital curriculum.

I myself was not lectured on Las Casas in my formal education through graduate school in anthropology (1981-86; 1991-98). I learned about Las Casas and Zinn from social activists protesting US intervention in El Salvador in 1981. I remember two graduate anthropology students ridiculing Zinn for “having no theory” and being “just a storyteller.” They preferred Louis Althusser, popular at the time. Anthropologist Carl Maida shared a similar story. “I completed my doctorate in anthropology at UCLA in 1981, through the Center for Afro-American Studies without having heard of La Casas.”

Today Zinn is known and admired by a good many anthropologists, though I wonder how much and to what degree he and Las Casas are employed pedagogically? The looming question is this, Why did it take a people’s historian to do what conventional anthropologists should have been doing, i.e., educating the U.S. public in a compelling, holistic way about their own radical cultural history?

The Makings of a Critical Pedagogue

Zinn was born and raised in the tenements of New York. A working class organic intellectual Zinn was “the Other” in a U.S. university system that too often reproduces elite cultural capital. A bombardier in World War 2, Zinn was educated at Columbia on the GI Bill of Rights. He then pursued a teaching career and made a searing impact on US culture through his writings and social activism. Along the way he suffered arrests, humiliations, FBI surveillance, poverty, and a famous firing from Spelman College. You can read all about it in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (Zinn 1994).”

“How can you have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if you don’t have the right to food, housing and health care?” he said in Artists in Times of War (Zinn 2004:59).

Like Woody Allen’s film Zelig, Zinn always seemed to be where history was happening: on a bus with the freedom riders, marching with Martin Luther King in the 1950s, taking a trip to Hanoi to rescue three US soldiers during the Vietnam War, informing the world about SNCC, assisting Father Daniel Berrigan while underground from the US government, harboring a copy of Ellsberg’s The Pentagon Papers before publication.

Zinn did not separate his social science teaching from his citizenship activism. They were as intertwined as the ramble to a rose. Henry Giroux, a friend of Zinn for thirty years, wrote in a memorial column, “We had grown up in similar neighborhoods, shared a similar cultural capital and we both probably learned more from the streets than we had ever learned in formal schooling. There was something about Howard’s fearlessness, his courage, his willingness to risk not just his academic position, but also his life, that marked him as special – untainted by the often corrupting privileges of class entitlement. (Giroux 2010).”

In many ways Zinn and Las Casas are distant cousins. Both exhibited a habit of transgression in their everyday lives and this was reflected in their writings.

The Art of Teaching History

After discussing Las Casas and Zinn for the better part of two hours I give my anthropology students the Columbus play assignment again. Only this time it’s a five-page paper due in two weeks so they can give it some solid thought. Also, this time the context changes. They now become a Detroit-based teacher of high school history and theater. This time they are instructed to conceive of a play (scenes, outlines, titles, sample dialogue) that is heavily based on the historical evidence as revealed by Las Casas.

I am always dismayed at what I receive back. Consistently a significant minority never mention the genocide. Most students do not give voice to the Arawaks focusing instead on Columbus and his crew. Often the chief focus on the student play revolves around one of Columbus’s men, Rodrigo de Traina, who according to Las Casas, first spotted land but was never given a yearly pension of 10,000 maravedis for life that had been promised to the first person who sighted land. Columbus took it for himself.

I ask why didn’t you describe the details of genocide?

Many protest. “Students are too young to hear all of this violence.” “High school is not the appropriate place to show this.” “Isn’t that unpatriotic?” “Wouldn’t you get in trouble?” “Isn’t that going against the United States of America?” “You might get fired.”

Yes, occasionally there is a remarkable student play that describes daily life among the Arawaks, or carefully dramatized scenes of Arawak rebellion, or graphic violence, or just abstract symbolism of sorrow. There have been a few so brilliant that I wish I could produce them myself! But that is rare.

Then we talk about the concept of self-censorship, a principle mode of social control in U.S. culture.

“You stopped yourselves, without edging towards the supposed line of repression,” I said. “You do not know that line unless you cross it.”

I explain how teachers, writers and intellectuals all wrestle with this pressure. But education means stretching yourself and sometimes taking risks, just like Zinn and Las Casas did in their lives. The risks in this case are probably not as severe as they fear, I tell them, since even the celebratory versions of Columbus assert that they rely on Las Casas.

One has to teach the controversies in a creative way or “education” becomes meaningless. As Giroux said, “Zinn . . . .insisted that the university is one of the few spaces where the task of educating students to become critical agents and socially engaged citizens is not only crucial to the meaning of education but also an essential condition of academic labor and democracy itself (Giroux 2010).”

The Art of Zinn

In 1984 I attended a play by “The Impossible Theater” called “Social Amnesia” which converted much of Zinn’s “A Peoples History” into a musical! This past September, Matt Damon, a close friend of Zinn, helped put together “The People Speak” another theatrical adaptation of Zinn’s work (assembling many well known actors like Marisa Tomei and musicians like Bob Dylan) to great effect. In yet another format, a cartooned YouTube presentation of Zinn’s recent 2008 book, “A Peoples’ History of the American Empire” is now available on line. It is called “Empire or Humanity: What the Classroom Didn’t Teach me About the American Empire (Zinn 2009).”

There is also today an outpouring of Las Casas studies. A new book, Approaches to Teaching the Writings of bartelome de Las Casas (Arias and Merediz eds., 2008) includes 26 contributors who vigorously bring Las Casas’s debates into 2010 classrooms. Moreover, in 2007 the Project Gutenberg EBook has made several of Las Casas writings freely available (and translated into English) on line (see Las Casas 2007).

Zinn has much to teach a new generation about radical public education. His very life was a glorious work of performance art, up to his last breath.

Scholars are now wrestling with these issues in the new “public pedagogy” movement in universities. One book that I am currently awaiting to arrive at my door is “The Handbook of Public Pedagogy: Education and Learning Beyond Schooling” (Sandlin 2009) which has assembled 65 chapters from leading theorists and activists on this urgent task. Included are Norman Denzin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Henry Giroux, Ralph Nader and Grace Lee Boggs.

In the meantime I’ll continue to tell my Introduction to Anthropology students (the great majority being from the working class) “If you could only read one book cover-to-cover in college it should be Howard Zinn’s ‘A Peoples’ History of the United States.’”

Howard Zinn would surely agree.

BRIAN McKENNA lives in Michigan. He can be reached at: mckenna193@aol.com

Note: An earlier version of this article was published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, February 2010, Tim Wallace, Editor. See:
http://www.sfaa.net/newsletter/feb10nl.pdf

References

Arias, Santa and Eyda Merediz eds., 2008 Approaches to Teaching the Writings of bartelome de Las Casas. New York : Modern Language Association of America.

Giroux, Henry. Howard Zinn, A Public Intellectual who Mattered, Truthout, January 28, 2010.

Las Casas, Bartolome. 2007 (circa 1550) A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

Las Casas, Bartolome. Website http://www.lascasas.org/

Lewis, Gordon K. Main Currents in Caribbean Thought. 2004 (1983) The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in Its Ideological Aspects, 1492–1900.

Sandlin, Jennifer, Brian Schultz and Jake Burdick (eds.) 2009 Handbook of Public Pedagogy, Education and Learning Beyond Schooling. New York: Routledge.

Zinn, Howard. 1994 You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, A Personal History of Our Times. Boston:Beacon Press.

Zinn, Howard. 2003 Artists in Times of War. New York:Seven Stories Press.

Zinn, Howard, Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle. 2008 A Peoples’ History of the American Empire. New York:Metropolitan Books.

Zinn, Howard. 2009 Empire or Humanity: What the Classroom Didn’t Teach me About the American Empire.

Zinn, Howard, Chris Moore and Anthony Arnove. 2009 The People Speak.

Zinn, Howard. 2010 Webpage http://www.howardzinn.org/default/index.php

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com

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