By Sunsara Taylor
Howard Zinn led a life of principle and resistance. His death today by heart attack is a tremendous loss to the people around the world. Few people so consistently used their platform and respect to shine a light on the crimes being committed in our names, to turn people on to the truths this system tries to hide, and to foster a climate and spirit of resistance and truth-telling. He stood against the U.S.’s unjust wars for empire.
He excavated the buried genocidal history of this country. He challenged generation after generation to read and think outside the margins of acceptable academic discourse. I saw him speak not long ago at University of Chicago and got to watch the reaction of freshmen who’d never heard the kind of history — radical and truthful history — that Zinn brought to life… or the humor and friendly challenge to everyone in the audience to make their lives about something more meaningful than just getting a degree, a career, or a way for oneself. Zinn lived a life for the people and for a better future and challenged everyone he met to do the same.
Here is a link to an interview that Raymond Lotta did for the Revolutionary Worker (now Revolution Newspaper) with Howard back in 1998:
On November 24, 1998, Maoist political economist Raymond Lotta talked with Howard Zinn about 100 years of U.S. empire and radical prospects for the future.
Raymond Lotta: Howard, it’s very exiting to be speaking with you, and I want to thank you for taking part in this interview.
Howard Zinn: Well, I’m glad to do it.
RL: You’ve written books that have influenced so many students, activists, and intellectuals. So I thought we might start by finding out about how you became a historian and how you see your role as a historian.
HZ: I got into history not to be a historian, not to be a scholar, not to be an academic, not to write scholarly articles for scholarly journals, not to go to academic conferences to deliver papers to bored fellow historians.
I got into history because I was already an activist at the age of 18.
I was working in a shipyard. I was organizing young shipyard workers. And I was introduced to radical ideas.
I was reading Marx, I was reading Upton Sinclair, I was reading Jack London, I was reading The Grapes of Wrath. So I was a politically aware young man working in the shipyard. I was there for three years. Then I enlisted in the Air Force. I was a bombardier in the United States Air Force, and came out and worked at various jobs. All of these influences: I came from a working class family…my upbringing–I have a chapter in my memoir called "Growing Up Class Conscious,” and I guess, yes, I grew up class conscious, a phrase not too often used in the United States…my class consciousness…my experience in the war [World War 2], my complicated reactions to the war, the so-called "best war,” "the good war”…living in a working class neighborhood with my wife, raising two kids, having a tough time…going to school under the GI Bill while working in a warehouse…being a member of a number of different unions from time to time, interested in the labor movement, reading the history of labor struggles.
So when I began to study history and began to think about being a teacher and writing history, I already understood that I was not going to be a neutral teacher. I was not going to simply be a scholar.
RL: You had definite ideas about the kind of historian you wanted to be.
HZ: I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle. I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching. From the very first moment I stepped into a classroom, I knew that I was not going to be one of those teachers that at the end of the semester, at the end of the year, the students wanted to know where does this teacher stand. They were going to know where I stood from the very beginning! That’s been my attitude all the way through, and still is.
RL: How do you see breaking down the boundaries between your work as an intellectual in the university and what is happening in the larger society?
HZ: I see it two-fold. One, bringing the world into the classroom, and bringing current issues into the classroom. Whatever course I was teaching–whether it was political theory or constitutional law–there was always going back-and-forth between what was in the textbook, what was in history, what was in the past, and what was happening in the world today at the time I was teaching. So the classroom itself was for me a meeting ground of the outside world and the world of the university.
At the same time, I thought that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t confine my life to the academy. I had to be involved in the world outside. Because if I wasn’t involved in the world outside, I would be delivering a message to my students, and the message to my students would be [laughing]: it’s great to talk about all these things in the classroom, it’s a wonderful thing, but you don’t have to do anything about it. I wanted my actions to convey to my students what was important in life.
So during my first teaching job, Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, where I taught for seven years in the years of the civil rights movement, I soon became involved in the movement. And I saw my role as a teacher to teach by my activity outside the classroom as well as by what I was saying in the classroom.
Read the rest of this interview here.