A Young People’s History of the United States
When Howard Zinn first published A People’s History of the United States
27 years ago, it challenged traditional historical narratives of U.S. history
by focusing on the people and not the powerful. Zinn’s work was groundbreaking
as an antidote to the U.S. history that had been taught for so long in
our public schools. Unfortunately, teachers and parents who sought to bring
Zinn’s social perspectives to young people have been at a loss, until now.
Rebecca Stefoff has adapted Zinn’s history book to create a two-volume
set for young adult readers ages 10-14 called A Young People’s History
of the United States. The books are complete with full-page illustrations,
a glossary, and primary sources. Volume One takes young readers through
the days of Columbus to the Spanish-American War of 1898. Volume Two covers
the class struggles of the 20th century and ends with the present so-called
war on terror. In the introduction to the first volume, Zinn writes, “We
should be able to tell the truth about people whom we have been taught
to look upon as heroes, but who really don’t deserve that admiration.”
SAN ROMAN: History is an extremely unpopular subject in schools across
the U.S. What can your new volumes do to reverse that perception and why
do you think that perception exists?
ZINN: The reason history is unpopular in schools is that it’s presented
as a rather dull succession of dates and events to be remembered so that
young people can pass the tests that they need to get into college, to
get good grades, and so on. Generally, the excitement of history and the
nature of conflict in history are missing. In other words, the elements
of drama are missing. In fact, history is very dramatic. It is a matter
of conflict between classes, races, nations, dissenters and the establishment,
and when history is presented in terms of conflict, students can decide
which side they are on. They can participate. It becomes more interesting.
Also, the students and young people become more interested in history when
they have heroes they can really respect, not the usual heroes, not just
the presidents, the generals, the industrialists, but the people who are
closer to the ordinary even though they may become leaders of movements.
They can respect heroes such as black people who come out of ordinary circumstances,
but become leaders of a social movement. They can respect heroes such as
working people who then become labor organizers, women working in the mills
and factories who go on to become union organizers and radicals. I think
these are the heroic people that are easier for a young person to identify
with than people whose achievements and whose standing goes far outside
the possibility for ordinary people. I think there is room for a different
kind of history for young people.
Rebecca, what factors and objectives did you take into consideration in
the course of adapting A People’s History to a book for young people?
STEFOFF: I decided that the only way I could do it was to leave Howard Zinn’s perspective,
his distinctive take on history and especially his unique voice, intact.
It didn’t make sense to think about reframing his book in the kind of value-neutral
way that history is often presented to young people. There are good reasons
for that approach, but it doesn’t have to be followed in all cases. There
should also be room for passion and advocacy and for views of history that
depart from the “official” versions.
What makes Howard’s book so special is that it has passion and a particular
purpose and point of view, but he isn’t sneaky about it. He says in the
beginning, and throughout the book, that he is writing a different kind of
history. He also writes about the challenges and pitfalls of writing history,
which is something that is often glossed over in books for kids. I felt
that it was not only possible, but actually necessary to keep his perspective
and tone intact, even though I knew that some things would have to be condensed, or
simplified, or explained to make them accessible in a book for young adults.
Fortunately, the publisher was absolutely committed to producing a young-adult
history that was not just “based on” Howard Zinn’s book, but was that book,
as much as possible. I was able to leave a lot of the story in Howard’s
own words. The biggest challenge was having to cut a lot of material. I
agonized over the anecdotes and quotations that didn’t make it into the
final manuscript. But I knew that Howard would review everything and correct
me if I went off track.
Howard, mainstream history certainly has a tradition of heromaking, in
particular with regard to figures such as Christopher Columbus. What do
you say to those who complain that a nuanced view of history tears down
traditional heroes that youths need in order to be inspired and interested
ZINN: I agree that young people need heroes and people to emulate. The
question is should they be taught to emulate people like Columbus who killed,
kidnapped, and enslaved Indians in pursuit of gold? Should they be asked
to emulate the founding fathers even though they were slaveholders? Should
they be asked to look upon as heroes people like Andrew Jackson who massacred
Indians or Theodore Roosevelt who loved war and who approved of the killing
and massacring of Filipinos at the turn of the century? Instead of Columbus
give them las Casas who exposed the crimes of Columbus. Instead of Andrew
Jackson give them the Cherokee Indians who resisted their expulsion. Instead
of Theodore Roosevelt give them Mark Twain, Helen Keller, or Eugene Debs
who opposed the Spanish-American War and the Philippine War.
How does A Young People’s History highlight the stories of traditionally
excluded communities in the U.S.?
ZINN: You are absolutely right that for people of color, women, and working
people, they are not likely to find themselves represented in history.
What A Young People’s History does is bring into the light the black members
of the abolitionist movement, as well as the labor organizers and radicals.
A Young People’s History gives women their due by telling about the work
of women who organized the textile workers in New England in the 1830s
and the women coming out of the abolitionist movement before the Civil
War. The book also highlights great women labor organizers like Mother
Jones and the women of the organizing struggles of the 1930s. Emma Goldman
gets no mention in traditional histories, but she was a prominent figure
as a feminist and anarchist.
Rebecca, does the book seek to differentiate itself from the massive history
textbooks that weigh young people down in school?
STEFOFF: Some characteristics of Howard Zinn’s book lent themselves very
well to adapting the book for young people. For one thing, Howard made
a lot of his points through stories—episodes in the lives of real people,
often told in their own words, as well as extracts from songs, poems, and
letters. I tried to keep as many of those in the text as possible. One
way that the young readers’ version of the book differs from other history
books is that it is not an abstract, generalized summary or overview, but
rather a patchwork of experiences and voices. We also added a lot of subheads.
Although we thought a glossary would be helpful, we stayed away from the
apparatus that goes with most textbooks—lists, questions, study guides,
and the like. The idea was to encourage kids to approach the book as a
Howard, Volume One spends considerable time on the American Revolution.
Familiar events such as the drafting of the Constitution and the Boston
massacre are mentioned. But your book differs from other educational texts
in terms of contextualizing such events using a class analysis. Why is
class analysis so taboo in our nation’s schools and conversely how important
is it in understanding historical events?
ZINN: Class analysis is taboo because both our culture and our educational
system are built around the idea that we are one big happy family. They
are built around the idea that there is no difference of interests between
us and the people in charge. Since the beginning, America has been a class
society divided between rich and poor, landlord and tenant, slave owner
and slave. It is also misleading to give young people the idea that all
the colonists were united in fighting against England. They were not united
at all. Poor people had to be conscripted. They had to be made promises
like the recruiters of today who give bonuses to young people in order
to join. The class divisions that had existed before the American Revolution
in the colonies were present during the Revolution and right after the
Revolution. There were rebellions against the people who were in charge
of the new government as in the case of Shay’s rebellion in Massachusetts
in 1787. Without class analysis, you don’t understand conflict and you
are misleading young people about the complexities, about the government
and the people, and the difference of interests which always exist. The
government has to deceive people with slogans in order to create the notion
of a common interest with the people in charge of the government.
A Young People’s History doesn’t hold back in terms of retelling the violent
atrocities that have occurred in U.S. history. Is the argument for age
censorship in terms of such violent histories really more about the challenge
it poses to the patriotism of establishment history?
ZINN: I have no doubt that the indignation about telling young people about
the atrocities, the violence, the lynching, and the massacres of Indians
has a political motive. Young people are not innocent of violence. I mean
on our television screens and in movies, our young people are exposed to
a huge amount of violence. It is not that they have been spared violence
and then are suddenly brought into a world of violence. Presumably, what
these people really care about is not wanting young people to hear about
the massacres of Indians or the lynching of blacks or the murder of strikers.
It’s not that they want to protect young people from violence. They want
to protect them from understanding what has happened in this country; what
has happened to Native Americans, what has happened to blacks, what has
happened to labor organizers. In traditional history, young people learn
about wars and violence, but they learn that the United States has done
only good in the world, winning wars and so forth. Actually, in these traditional
stories, we have spared the massacres that U.S. soldiers have committed
abroad, whether it is in the past or with the Iraqis today.
How does the de-emphasis of social movements in establishment history play
into not only apathy about the past, but apathy in terms of active civic
engagement in the present?
ZINN: When traditional history is presented based on the doings of important
people, when history is the story of presidents and military leaders, the
actions of Congress and the Supreme Court and the economic titans of history,
when it is presented that way, the idea is supplanted that there is nothing
really for ordinary people to do in making history. Great people will do
it. All we have to do is go to the polls every four years and elect another
great person. The point of presenting a people’s history is to show that,
in fact, you cannot depend on the people in authority to solve problems
of injustice or to stop wars. A people’s history encourages people to take
their place as citizens in society. It encourages them in the task of changing
the social norms.
What advice do you have for teachers who wish to teach the lessons of A
Young People’s History, but might be intimidated to do so?
ZINN: I can understand that teachers, might be intimidated because they
are up against an establishment that doesn’t want young people to be taught
the kind of history that might make them dissidents or rebels in society.
But I think teachers should understand that their teaching will not be
meaningful for them and that their teaching will not be interesting to
them if they do not break away from traditional history. Sure they will
be taking risks for promotions, for salaries, and of being labeled a radical.
But if you do not take those risks, then you are giving up your freedom
to teach. You are giving up what is fundamental to any teacher and that
is to be honest with your students about what you believe.
Rebecca, the New York Times, in a review of the book, accused Howard Zinn
of “depressive progressivism” while at the same time noting his goal of
inspiring idealism in young people. How do you respond to such criticism?
STEFOFF: To me, Howard’s view of history is not one of nay-saying, hero-bashing,
or negativism. It’s one that challenges the reader to look below the surface,
ask unpopular questions, and remember and be inspired by the best that
Americans have done, and the often surprising ways they have found unity
and power. It seems patronizing to think that young adults can’t handle
more than one version of history, or that they can’t decide for themselves
whether what Howard Zinn offers is meaningful. If they get nothing else
from the book other than the awareness that there are competing interpretations
of history, that is a valuable thing to have learned.
Howard, the New York Times review also accused you of oversimplifying history.
How do you respond to this?
ZINN: The charge of oversimplification is interesting. I believe, on the
contrary, that traditional history simplifies. In traditional history,
Columbus is a hero, period. There’s nothing negative about that in traditional
history. Andrew Jackson is a hero. Woodrow Wilson is a hero. Abraham Lincoln
freed the slaves. In traditional history, America is a story of great progress,
of America doing good in the world and winning wars. To my mind, that is
a very simplistic approach. History is not simple but complex when you
introduce the idea of class conflict. It becomes complex when you introduce
the idea that you cannot depend on the establishment to solve social problems
and that people’s movements are necessary. Abraham Lincoln becomes a more
complex figure. Theodore Roosevelt becomes a more complex figure. These
are not simplifications.
The person behind the charge of simplification has a political agenda.
The political agenda is that the person who charges simplification simply
does not like what A Young People’s History says about our traditional
heroes and what our policies are.
Gabriel San Roman is a freelance journalist and co-producer of “Uprising,”
a daily radio show on KPFK Pacifica.