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review 2017-08-14 18:47
"A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn
A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present - Howard Zinn

One late night, having been sucked into a dead end conversation with a drunk old man, it came out that I had studied history in college and that I had focused on Irish history. 

 

"Irish history!?," he shouted. "Why there wouldn't be any Irish history without the English!"

 

The "great man" theory of history had never been laid so nakedly to me before. The idea that the decisions of British monarchs were not just a major force on Irish history, but the only thing that mattered was so obviously wrong I was flabbergasted. 

 

Between the time when that old man's education and my own, the rote memorization of kings, presidents, and dates, while not completely out of style, had been supplemented by the stories of the people who lived in those times. Ethnic, social, and other groups that rose up in the 60s and 70s awoke people in and out of academia to an interest in what it was actually like to live at different times and places. They started to look not only at how Andrew Jackson dealt with Native American tribes, but in the tribes themselves, their histories, motives, home lives, and what happened after big events like the Trail of Tears. 

 

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was among the first and most well-known books to come out of this new school of history. It's a survey of the entirety of European presence in the United States of America, from the landing of Columbus to — in my edition —  the bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11. Zinn tries to do this by collecting the stories of people who lived outside of the government: farmers, factory workers, Native Americans, African-Americans, women, domestic workers, miners, and so on.

 

Most of us by this time recognize the spark notes: disease and massacres against the Native Americans, slavery and stolen rights for black people, insult and deportation for Latinx, hard labor and exclusion for Chinese immigrants, and women of all ethnicities resigned to domestic servitude. These high level facts are enough to be upsetting but Zinn brings us closer in, using contemporary documents to illustrate how these played out on an individual level. What did it mean to be an enslaved black woman or a Native American family marched from their homes in Georgia to an unknown expanse in Oklahoma. These stories are even more devastating than you remember or could have imagined.

 

In a book that covers a great breadth of human experiences, going into detail requires that he move through subjects quickly. If you want a comprehensive dive into the civil rights movement or women's suffrage you will have to find more pointed books on those topics. Zinn acknowledges this weakness in the afterword, pointing out that he didn't go far enough into LGBTQ issues and the Latinx labor movements in California, for example, and he recommends some books for further reading on those issues, if you are interested. But by taking the time to explore these stories past the statistics, A People's History carries a punch that numbers and charts alone could not achieve.

 

Because of all the good that is in this book, my critiques feel minor, but there were aspects that I feel distracted from the good of the book and made it harder to finish and embrace. 

 

My first issue actually cuts both ways. Zinn doesn't bother to retread the traditional history of many subjects. He assumes you know what is taught in favor of different wars and our westward expansion or maybe he doesn't care to make other people's arguments for them. In a way, this is clarifying. How we act as a nation, or even personally, shouldn't be subject to how others act against us. In more specific terms, if an enemy targets civilians our responsibility, if we are the force for good we insist we are, to not respond in kind. Usually we might try to soften criticism against our actions by listing off the ways others have done wrong, but Zinn offers no such quarter. This does serve as a challenge because there are almost certainly causes in American history you supported and will feel slighted by when Zinn points out the cruel American actions, say in World War II, without bothering with the disclaimer that "the other guys were worse."

 

I also found that A People's History works best in the parts where the name is treated literally — as a history focused on people — rather than euphemistically — see: the People's Republic of ______. As the book starts covering the rise of populism and socialism in the early 20th century, Zinn allows himself to get pulled from the stories of people living under government decisions and in a harsh, dangerous industrial economy to the political efforts he would side with. In his defense, mass demonstrations, general strikes, and calls for government control of industries have been pushed to the margins in many books, but Zinn presents a certain kind of movement as the most legitimate. As we push into the Nixon and Reagan eras his argument really gets strained. He raises up mass demonstrations as the voice of the people, but then has to get it to jibe with the electoral victories of angry, pro-capital men like Nixon, Reagan and Bush in moments that seem to be defined by activism. He looks at elections with skepticism, noting that over half the electorate stays home. This means even the landslide electoral victories represent the votes of just over a quarter of the electorate — a fair point. He attributes this to disillusionment then says the elected act undemocratically when they take positions that go against what the people believe according to polls. It's at worst a convenient belief, at best an optimistic one.

 

Some Democrats are now playing with the idea that a true economic populist would swing working-class voters back to their party, but Zinn seems to believe that such a platform would rewire the whole system, break down the cultural and political lines that divide natural allies in the poor, working and middle classes. I think he has to believe this. Addressing many of the systemic problems would require a huge electoral mandate ... or a turning away from democracy as we know it. 

 

 

Part of his turn toward demonstrations, he acknowledges, is to offer some hope. This is a devastating book that highlights how the government has done many truly indefensible things that we now have to live with. America's is a devastating and moving history. It's also very long, and in Zinn's hands, sometimes tedious. I had to put it down for a few months — after the election — partly because it was a lot to handle and because I hit a wall.

 

For those who have been frightened by the openly antagonistic role of the current administration to immigrants, the poor, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and so on, this is great place to start reminding yourself that America has never been good to these groups and how easily it can slip from bad to worse. There are constant efforts to bury the sins of our past, by removing it from our schools, by decrying these facts as unpatriotic, but knowledge is the first step in making real change to address these deep-rooted problems. 

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review 2017-06-26 00:00
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States - Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,Laural Merlington It's amazing how hearing the same story from a different perspective makes you see it all a little differently. While there are some bits that I'm not familiar with from American history classes throughout the years, most of the information isn't entirely new. This book just does something with the information that no American history class I've ever taken has done. It added in the impact those actions had on the Native Americans.

It reminded me that carrying out an action against a people and then going home, doesn't make that the end of what happens there. Many war stories also include this, but again, we forget in the US because we go in, fight it out, destroy everything, call the people liberated, and then go home. At least, that's been our way for a long time. Even countries that we occupied for a time weren't in the main consciousness of the rest of the country and the troops that have occupied those countries weren't there for so long that they joined in or cared about the community in a general way. Yes, some troops will do that but its not the mission and most just get homesick the longer they are anywhere. We don't have to pick up the pieces. I remember also reading a beautiful poem by Wislawa Szymborska called The End and the Beginning, it can be found at the Poetry Foundation here. There is always work to be done to recover from the all the "growing" out west that the US did.

While there's no argument that what the US did to the Native Americans as a whole is tragic, I can't help but notice the irony in having called them the "uncivilized" as our civilization continues to kill all things natural around us, especially when they always strove to protect it all. I also read this book far too close to my reading of Looking for Palestine to not notice the parallel situation we would find ourselves in as a country were the UN to look at us and say that we have to abide by the treaties that we signed with the many indigenous peoples' of the US. The people currently living in those areas would revolt as if the land hadn't been misappropriated in the first place. It's not as if the account here of how it was taken is strikingly different from what I remember of high school history. Again, the difference mainly surrounds that this book includes the effect on the Native Americans.

It did make me cringe a little to hear her call us "colonialists". It's not that the moniker is really wrong, especially once you've heard her case for it, but that it's so right it hurts a little. We, as a country, did all this while denouncing the form of colonialism that we had been under. We still managed to feel absolutely nothing about putting ourselves upon those who we could after having been so put upon by the English. It barely makes sense except for the tendency for people to take out their inability to control their own destinies on those who they can control. Like an abused child abusing their smaller sibling. It was also disappointingly true to hear her talk about our actions towards people of other countries with less military might than ours. I've read a few other books that would completely agree with this assessment of what we do when we aim to "liberate" other peoples*. It's more of a mess than anything else, but it's a mess of a way to handle things that we inherited and maybe one day we'll come up with the right way or at least a better way to handle it all but I won't hold my breath.

The book does note some promising changes to the way Native Americans are viewed and treated in the US but which can be easily seen in the divided responses people had to the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Stand with Standing Rock protests and campaign. The controversy received a lot of media attention and was a hot topic for part of the election but the direction of the election and that the pipeline stands and has already leaked oil show just how much further we have to go. Still, it gives me hope for the future.

My only problem with the book, though I completely understand it in the perspective, is the general way she talks about the troops. I get that it was exponentially easier in worse times to get the troops feeling hateful and then drunk and then just let them loose on society. I also get that incidents like Abu Ghraib doesn't inspire confidence in our present situation. The difference is that the Armed Forces themselves take great pains these days to prevent rather than inspire such behavior. I get that it doesn't make a whole lot of difference to the people that are on the other end of our weapons and I get that the present change in administration is troubling to many world-wide. Still, I felt I would be remiss in my review to not mention this attitude toward US troops for the benefit of future readers who may or may not have affiliation with the present Armed Forces. It makes the information here, though not generally untrue, a little harder to swallow at times.

Above all, I hope this book finds it's way into classrooms and churches and hearts. I hope we act on the actual virtues of Christianity and go back and decide without being further told to abide by those treaties, that we treat our neighbor better than we would treat ourselves, and find a way to coexist that's good for all of us. We can't fix the past but we can make a future that embodies what our ancestors should have done to begin with. Maybe we will one day. It's one of the things I'll be working toward in whatever ways I find.

I listened to the audiobook on Scribd, read by Laural Merlington.
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review 2015-10-26 19:26
Review: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (ReVisioning American History) - Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

First off, let me say that this book is great and it is desperately needed. While I have long turned my ears to the cries of injustice, the echoes of the indigenous peoples of the Americas have rarely made the impact they do here. Why? Because we are taught so little. Because in the spectrum of U.S. history, it is relatively ancient. Because there are so few today who raise their voices and demand to tell the story. Sure, we know the stories we were told in elementary school were erroneous. We know Columbus was not worth our celebration. We know Thanksgiving is a lie. We may even know the big events: The Trail of Tears, Little Bighorn, etc. I may be speaking out of place, but I would venture to guess most of us, even those who know the history of injustice in the United States, do not know all this. Certainly, I did not.

And so this book is needed. The genocide, the broken treaties, the lies, the programs that blatantly dressed in the garments of unabashed racism (all of which continued much much longer than I had imagined)--all that is spelled out so clearly here. And I must sincerely thank the author for having the courage and insight to put it all on paper.

That said, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States reads a little too heavily like a textbook. And like other textbooks, it is a textbook with an agenda. In some ways, that's good, because we need a textbook that tells the other side of the story; but in the same way school textbooks imply that Indians are uncivilized brutes, An Indigenous Peoples' History... implies that the white man is savage and greedy. This angle doesn't bode well for a work that should educate, not finger point. In fact, this book does little to paint the indigenous people of North America as much more than victims; I would've appreciated learning more about their history sans the white man. If An Indigenous Peoples' History... is indeed meant to counter the school textbook, it is my feeling that it should stand as an anti-textbook and bear as little similarity to the textbook lies as possible.

Additionally, the book is repetitive at times, foreshadowing an event and then, when chronologically appropriate, retelling those details in almost the same words. Surely, this book would not have suffered from tighter editing.

Minor quibbles aside, this book is important. It may not be the most riveting story of indigenous persecution (though it has turned me onto finding some of those works), but it is likely the most complete, relatively concise work on the subject. Those interested in or who feel obligated to learn of the injustices perpetrated by the United States throughout history should consider this one an essential read.

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review 2015-09-29 00:00
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States - Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz,Laural Merlington It's an ambitious book, and it mostly manages what it's trying to do. It's mostly about trends and highlights, rather than exhaustive detail on any nation or period, which can be a little frustrating, but anyone who wants to know more can doubtless research specifics. For all that the author also tended to get a little sidetracked by other political issues, and some of her generalisations were a little too sweeping even for a survey history, but for all that I think that the outlook in this book is an important one.

The concept of re-framing American history isn't new, but the bluntness this book uses can be a little stunning, and I think that it's necessary. It's necessary to remember what the US (and Canada) is built on, and this is a good overview of the topic. I really feel like it should be a starting place for a re-examination of the history of the Americas, no matter what the topic.
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