Howard Zinn is arguably the most important American historian. He brought a radical transformation to the construction of history that was previously unheard of. By siding with the oppressed, the underprivileged, the victims, the poor and the weak, he made their voices heard through his writing. The People’s History of the United States is a landmark scholarly achievement in this regard. It ushered in the trend of subaltern study and analysis to history departments in American Colleges (although many major educational institutions have not yet embraced this book). More importantly, the book has brought balance to historical recounting of events, where erstwhile only the elite point of view was accepted and made available to the public. In this context it is interesting to scrutinize the rationale and the thought process of the author in his choice of chapter titles and their contents. The rest of this essay is an attempt to do the same with respect to the first five chapters of the book in question.
The first chapter is titled ‘Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress’. Irony is writ large in this title, as the contents of this chapter are about one of the greatest undertakings of genocide in human history. With wry humor and a deep sense of loss, the conscientious Howard Zinn reminds us that the so-called ‘discovery’ of America is as much the ‘decimation’ of indigenous peoples of the land. Columbus Day is taught to young kids as a day of celebration and patriotic reminiscence. But as Zinn offers by way of copious factual evidence, starting from the islands of the Caribbean to lands in central America to later landings in Jamestown, Virginia, the European ‘discovery’ of America in unequivocally the start of the demise of native cultures and populations that had rightfully claimed it its home. (Chapter 1, page 7) The term ‘human progress’ is again included for its irony, for, the European settlers invariably carried out systematic displacement, enslavement and massacre of native Indians – all under the noble guise of ‘human progress’. In fact, Christopher Columbus and subsequent Spanish conquistadors in South America sincerely seemed to have believed that they were acting the will of Jesus Christ even as they were ordering the most heinous of crimes. (Chapter 1, page 9)
The second chapter is titled ‘Drawing the Color Line’. This is a straight forward title representing one of the earliest and deep-rooted malice in American society – that of racism. The skin color of the native Indians as well as African slaves were both taken as sufficient justification for their subordinate status. As the opening lines to the chapter notes,
“There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States. And the problem of “the color line,” as W. E. B. Du Bois put it, is still with us. So it is more than a purely historical question to ask: How does it start?—and an even more urgent question: How might it end? Or, to put it differently: Is it possible for whites and blacks to live together without hatred?” (Chapter 2, p.61)