This should be required reading. It was a bit of a coincidence that the hold I had on this volume at the library became available as the new year rolled around. I listened to the audiobook on my daily walks and was continually struck with the thought of “history repeats itself, history repeats itself.” There were many declarations made by Howard Zinn that could have easily been applied to life in America today. I also coincidentally read the chapter about the end of World War II and the implications for not truly defeating fascism but only thinking we did the day after the January 6th attack on the Capitol. I truly believe that should be required reading for every American, and actually every citizen of the world.
One of the hardest things to accept as we look around the country, read the news, and face how divided we have become is that the system is actually working the way it was designed. We can look around and see the unfairness in almost anything and think “the system is broken.” This can then lead us to thinking about how to fix the system. The punch to the stomach is realizing the system isn’t actually broken. The system is working according to its design. This *gestures around wildly* is how the system was built to work, from the first line of the preamble of the Constitution. It may read “we the people” but it really meant just a certain group of people. “We the people … who are in this room, but uhhh, not you.” The work then comes in when the people can see the system for what it was and try to change it. We can’t fix the system, we have to change the system. And it’s really hard to do it because the system wasn’t built to be changed.
A People’s History of the United States attempts to tell the history of the United States from the people’s view, hence the title. It tells history separate from the government, without political ties or appeasement to it. Howard Zinn makes this claim in his afterword when he expresses his desire to tell the story as it happened by the people because so many history books that we read in school are told from the point of view where the government is beyond reproach.
It’s certainly not an easy read. It’s hit after hit of horrible American behavior. I suppose if you’re one of the 1% for whom the system was built, maybe it is a good time. But for the rest of us, I think it leaves us thinking, really hard, about how we want to proceed. I will admit there were times I doubted if we should proceed. I put my own service into question. This book felt like a tome of secrets kept from me by educators to keep me in line. Of course, it was not kept from me — it’s been available for years, and I was simply intimidated by its size and potentially its contents. I also had enough hubris to think “yeah yeah, I know. We weren’t as nice as we should have been, but it’s all working out ok.” But then I read it and holy crap, we were not nice and also it is not really working out. Maybe we have to read the government sanctioned history to keep this lie going. But I think we’d be better off if we read A People’s History of the United States and believed the people. I suppose the availability of this book is one way things are working for us. Time and time again the people rose up against the system; more often than not the people didn’t get what they wanted, but they settled for a compromise. I think if we listened to the people more, we could build a system that would work out.