Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Remembering Howard Zinn

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction..."
-Howard Zinn

My Junior year in high school, we used A People's History of the United States to put Christopher Columbus on trial for genocide. That book blew my mind. Instead of reciting the version of history fed to us through the lens of the rich and powerful, through their experience as oppressor, Zinn's classic work opened up a whole new world: history from below. The book tells the inspiring, though often brutal, stories of everyday people struggling to create a better society. I would never be the same.

The following summer, I was working as a breakfast and lunch cook at The Flying Fish Cafe in Wellfleet, MA. On one particularly slow mid-week July afternoon my boss, local musician and educator Lisa Brown, came into the kitchen and said to me, "Matt, there's someone in the bakery I want you to meet." I followed her through the restaurant and into the adjacent bakery to see a tall, lanky grey-haired man. "Matt, this is Howard Zinn. Howard, this is Matt." Smiling with glee, I shook his hand and talked to him about my Junior paper which compared his friend and comrade Noam Chomsky with his (and my) historical hero(ine), anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman. He thought that was pretty cool and said that he would mention it to Noam!

Life changing moment. Check.

Lisa joined the teaching faculty that September at Nauset Regional High School and during the first week back to school invited Howard to speak one evening to the students in the School Within a School program. He was still on the Cape with his wife Roslyn who spent each summer in Wellfleet, where their son Jeff directed a local theater company.

It was such an honor seeing him speak about his life in my high school auditorium. He spoke about how his experiences as a bombardier in WWII opened his eyes to the inherent horror of war, his solidarity with black students during the civil rights struggle, and his belief in people's power to change the world.

I raised my hand and asked what young people who want to make a difference can learn from the past. He said that we need to find other people who want the same thing and work together, that we can't make as much of an impact alone. It has been organized movements, he explained, that have changed the course of history, not single figures like our history books pretend.

Over the years I had the great privilege to see Howard speak several times. I also rang up his groceries once, and shook his and Roslyn's hands in their driveway while walking around their neighborhood with my college friend Nick, who's parents lived down the street.

But most importantly, I continued to be inspired by his writing and tireless struggle against war and oppression, his contribution to social justice and a better society.

So, needless to say I was saddened by today's news that Howard Zinn died at the impressive age of 87.

Even though he is not with us anymore his work will live on forever...

"And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

Rest in peace, Howard.