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Howard Zinn in Chicago


This past January the 27th was the anniversary of Howard Zinn’s death. For all who knew Howard, be it through his books, speeches or from marching along side him on the restive streets of protest, his was a difficult loss to have suffered.

Trained as a historian at Columbia University, Howard wrote many books, most notably, A People’s History of the United States. While not breaking ground the way his late colleagues Eric Hobsbawm or E.P. Thompson did, Howard’s book was widely read and critically acclaimed. Selling over two million copies, each with a dust jacket donning praise from the inimitable Eric Foner, one might be inclined to think Howard only had a cortège of admirers. Of course this was not the case. While there had always been a handful of detractors who polemicized against his book when Howard was alive, there is one such critic who has done so two years after his passing. Worse yet, this particular reproof was from a teacher who was not only suggesting that Howards book was rife with inaccuracies, bias and should not be taught in public schools, but was also published in the American Federation of Teachers’ journal, American Educator.

To be clear, his critique is not without merits. For instance, Howard’s book did not have footnotes, though as a high school student I don’t recall being assigned many books with footnotes. Or more concretely, that some of Howard’s historiography may be slightly off. Speaking as someone who was first drawn to history partly by Howard’s book I have no problem admitting any mistakes Howard may have made and, as with any history, always look to other academics to round out the historical record. Moreover, as someone who can well remember the first assigned high school history book that had a galvanizing impact upon me, Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett Jr., I will not even attempt to redress any of the questions the critique raises because I well understand, as Howard helped to teach me, that when a text awakens a young mind by making sense out of what is a seemingly nonsensical world, this is not just an extremely powerful experience but can be the most powerful experience of all, which is realizing the power of ones’ own self-agency. As a matter of fact, that is why Howard wrote his book: not to give voice to the voiceless, but to help the voiceless find their own voice; not to help enfranchise the disenfranchised, but to help the disenfranchised enfranchise themselves.

You know, defending Howard’s posthumous assassination is not as easy as it seems. Perhaps I need a little help.

Howard had masterfully written a one man play called Marx in Soho, where Marx is reincarnated as himself only in modern-day Soho, New York. In it, Howard gives voice to Marx who makes critical observations of the present world, just as Marx did in his day and just as Howard had in his. In this spirit, let me conjure Howard back as best I can and see what he might have to say about the current situation.

“Oh my that is good!! How I have missed Dunkin’ Donuts coffee! You know, that was always a guilty, little pleasure of mine?

“Well, where are we? So the financial crisis has exacerbated in Europe and growth in the United States is concentrated at the top while obscene levels of unemployment is official policy just as is asking ordinary Americans to shoulder the burden of bailing out the banks. ‘Austerity’. I’ve always loved these Orwellian words. For instance, it is good to see that President Obama’s ‘Good War’ is winding down . . . Or is it?

“So, it appears that my book is causing consternation yet again. You know, I have never been surprised by such criticisms, of which there have been many. After all, I have been arrested and imprisoned more than once by people critical of my views.

“However, this instance does sting just a little. I mean, look around. It is not as if the state of public education does not merit plenty of close examinations. The same year I died, as a matter of fact, as if to play a cruel joke on me, Texas insisted that Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address be assigned the same gravity as Lincoln’s. Can you imagine?! Or in Virginia that same year, state sanctioned textbooks taught students that “loyal slaves” took up arms on behalf of the confederacy. No wonder 48 percent of Southerner’s fail to understand that the Civil War was fought to end slavery!! Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s school privatization flimflam allows for Creationism and other Bible related curricula to be taught as a hard science, usurping millions of dollars of pubic funds in the process. Yet it is my book is being rebuked? This would be laughable if it weren’t so grave.

“Of course the North is no better. Just look at Philadelphia or any number of major northern cities and all you find closures and spurious privatization schemes. Right now, in fact, Chicago is ground zero for school closures. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, in line with the “Race to the Top”, which reaches squarely into the Oval Office, will oversee the shuttering of 53 public elementary schools. These are mostly in the West and East sides of town and the affective class will therefore be both poor students and teachers of color. The Chicago Public School Board employs its own Orwellian euphemism, “underutilization”, to justify this injustice because how can it say, after all, that Black and Brown students don’t deserve small class sizes the same way its white, suburban counterparts do? How can it otherwise say that to now get to school, these students will have to walk miles through drug-infested and crime-ridden ghettos; ghettos that only American policy planners, from postwar segregation and deindustrialization, to neoliberal drug wars and the prison-industrial complex could birth?

“Fortunately the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) along with the broader community is fighting back. I would like to think that my book might have had something to do with this, even though over 100 Chicago public schools are sadly without libraries despite the fact that the CTU has found the school system running a large budget surplus, but I will not be so presumptuous. After all, my book had nothing whatsoever to do with the Mexican-American Studies Program that was enriching Chicano student lives, enhancing their school and civic participation, greatly decreasing drop-out rates—Latino’s comprising the greatest demographic to leave school prior to graduation— and increasing their performance on the Holy Grail of assessment metrics: standardized tests. It is here that we in fact see the hypocrisy of the ‘failed’ public school rhetoric disinterred. As soon as students self-indentify, taking an interested and active role in their own lives and education, to the point where they were willing to chain themselves to desks inside the Board of Education, the state still went ahead as planned and banned the Mexican-American Studies Program calling it, ‘racist’.

“Similarly, CTU President Karen Lewis, CTU rank-and-file members, students, parents and community members took to civil disobedience yesterday, attempting to stop the new Chicago Democratic machine from bulldozing schools and their communities into the ground. And make no mistake; this is not just about one locality or one sphere of society either. Public sector unions, whose members are overwhelmingly people of color, are the bulk of the unionized workforce today and as such, the last bulwark against the dismantling of the New Deal and the main obstacle of the wealthy to place full onus for the financial crisis they caused on to the backs of working people everywhere.

“This is why it is imperative to stand in solidarity with Chicagoans and the CTU’s preemptory fight against school closings. If working people are to have some modicum of security or even maintain their increasingly tepid footing in this precarious society of ours, it will only come through our solidarity with those most disaffected. Required is our tireless effort to see that, just like states are trying to roll back the Voting Rights Act, whatever hard-won right, like the eight-hour workday, our endeavors have earned, it will eventually be swallowed by the insatiable hunger that is corporate greed. And if we are to realize the last tenant of the civil rights movement, which is economic equality, it will necessitate revisiting post-racial and post-feminist notions as well as all concepts of hierarchical power domination, including the relationship that governs the state and our children. After all, the liberal institutions of governance will fire a teacher or close a school based on test scores, which have been shown to be fatuous, but will not ban high-capacity assault riffle magazines—let alone assault weapons—even though our children’s lives are routinely cut far too short while they are in the supposed safeguard of these same schools. This last point underscores the agenda of our corporate and government leaders vis-à-vis our children: profit is paramount and there is plenty of money to be made in school privatizations, lest Bill Gates and the Walton family would not have such vested interests. So please, stand up and stand with the CTU!!

“The CTU today, the CTU tomorrow, the CTU forever!!”

Benjamin J. George is a social justice activist who may be reached at benjaminjgeorge@gmail.com

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