Historian Howard Zinn died in 2010. Today, he remains a model for left-wing intellectuals in how to both convey ideas to a public beyond academia and how to take direct action to transform the world.
Teaching at Spelman, a black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, Zinn supported and advised the student sit-in movement. During the war on Vietnam, he traveled to Hanoi to receive American prisoners whom the North Vietnamese had shot out of the sky. And he published A People’s History of the United States, a book that prompted many readers to, for the very first time, see the United States’s foundational myths of American innocence and meritocratic reward as lies.
As Eric Foner wrote in an obituary for the Nation, “Few historians managed to reach a broad non-academic audience. Those who do generally write monumental history, works that celebrate great men or heroic events. Zinn’s history was different. . . . Zinn’s public learned about ordinary American struggles for justice, equality and power.” Foner continued,
I have long been struck by how many excellent students of history first had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn. Sometimes, to be sure, his account tended toward the Manichaean, an oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and darkness. But A People’s History taught an inspiring and salutary lesson — that despite all too frequent repression, if America has a history to celebrate it lies in the social movements that have made this a better country.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, has written a foreword to a new edition of You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn’s autobiography. Daniel Denvir spoke with Taylor about Zinn’s life and legacy for his podcast the Dig.
Read the full transcript from Jacobin here.