Fizzy Jill and I are reading a chapter a week of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Each Monday, we’ll be posting our thoughts on that week’s chapter. Feel free to join us in whatever way you prefer—by reading along, commenting, or writing your own posts. To keep things organized, link up posts over at Jill’s blog as she is the quasi-official host who designed the button and reading schedule. (Note: I’m posting this on Sunday night as my son is off from school tomorrow and I won’t be able to get to the computer until tomorrow night. I’ll be around to visit everyone’s posts then.) This week, we read Chapter 1: Columbus, The Indians and Human Progress.
Reaffirmation of Why I’m Reading This Book
Right off the bat, Zinn reminded me why I wanted to read this book: so I can counteract (or “enhance”) the view of history that is taught to my son in school. When my son comes home with Columbus Day stuff, I want to be able to tell him exactly why Columbus didn’t exactly discover America and why he isn’t quite the hero we make him out to be. As Zinn writes:
My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress…—that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks.
As a parent, I think it is my duty to enhance my son’s education by providing him with a broader view of the world than what he is taught in school. I remember when I got to college, I was flabbergasted to learn that the U.S. government lies and does bad things. (I was really naive.) Using my college years to learn more about history, religion and culture helped me view the world more critically and compassionately. I vowed to ensure that my future children would be exposed to a more rounded view of the world than the one I had been presented with for most of my life.
A Side Note: It felt like every year in history class, we started in Mesopotamia, spent AGES there and then had to play catch-up for the rest of the year—skipping over most of recent U.S. history. The furthest I ever remember getting before attending college was World War II—and that was presenting just the basic facts. Pretty bad, huh?
Zinn’s purpose in writing this book is that much of the history we were taught was told from the point of view of “governments, conquerors, diplomats and leaders.” This point of view leaves out the point of view of the conquered. Zinn plans to use this book to take a different approach:
Thus, in the inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try and tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott’s army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar America empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can “see” history from the standpoint of others.
As a parent, I want to know this information so I can share it with my son so he has a more balanced and broader view of history. (Which is why I also got the kid’s version of the book.) Reading this first chapter—with its descriptions of how the European explorers and settlers dealt with the Arawaks, Aztecs, Incas, Powhatans and Pequots—I’m reminded of the viciousness, greed and deception that characterized the arrival of the Europeans to a land that was already populated and settled by civilizations that were, in many ways, vastly more enlightened and egalitarian than the civilizations that replaced them.
I Want To Be An Iroquois
Although this chapter was a real downer as we read about how Native Americans were systematically decimated by war and disease, one of the bittersweet things was learning about Iroquois society, which included equality of the sexes (in fact, women kind of ruled the roost), respect and nurturing of children, sharing of land and resources (there were no poorhouses because there were no poor), and respect for nature. As Zinn points out:
Even allowing for the imperfection of myths, it is enough to make us question, for that time and ours, the excuse of progress in the annihilation of races, and the telling of history from the standpoint of the conquerors and leaders of Western civilization.
Although Zinn may appear to writing from a romantic and liberal view, he does take care to leaven things by pointing out:
My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run (and so far, human history has consisted only of short runs), the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.
In short, this book should provide a new lens through which to view and understand U.S. history. Personally, I am looking forward to broadening my personal knowledge so I can help to broaden my son’s perspective of history as he begins to learn more about the country he lives in and how it fits into the world around us.
One More Jab At Columbus
To end this post, I wanted to share a description of Columbus that I read in Bill Bryson’s At Home: A History of A Private Life:
It would be hard to name any figure in history who has achieved more lasting fame with less competence. He spent large parts of eight years bouncing around Caribbean islands and coastal South America convinced that he was in the heart of the Orient and that Japan and China were at the edge of every sunset. He never worked out that Cuba is an island and never once set foot on, or even suspected the existence of, the landmass to the north that everyone thinks he discovered: the United States. He filled his holds with valueless iron pyrite (thinking it was gold) and with what he confidently believed to be cinnamon and pepper. The first was actually a worthless tree bark, and the second were not true peppers but chili peppers—excellent when you have grasped the general idea of them, but a little eye-wateringly astonishing.
Add in Zinn’s account of Columbus’s dishonesty, cruelty to the Arawaks and blatant focus on acquiring gold, and I think we can make a case for banishing Columbus Day altogether.