Let's Talk Books (Blogapalooz-Hour: Volume XLI)

Let's Talk Books (Blogapalooz-Hour: Volume XLI)

So my mission, which I’ve chosen to accept…

“Write about a book or publication that is special to you or has had a big impact on your life.”

Will: “A History of the United States, Volume I.” If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.” That book will knock you on your ass.

Sean: How about Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent?”

Will: You people baffle me. You spend all this money on beautiful, fancy books–and they’re the wrong fuckin’ books.

Sean: You think so?

Will: Whatever blows your hair back.
~ Good Will Hunting

Now what can I say…A People’s History of the United States knocked me on my ass.  If you haven’t read it, let me break it down to you as simply as I can.

History is written by the winners…the people in power or in charge at any given moment are the ones who go on to write the history books.  Now, what would a history book look like if it were written by the people viewed upon as the “losers”, or more accurately, the oppressed and manipulated?

That’s what Howard Zinn’s A People’s History goes on to do…and it does it, most effectively.  My overriding thought after read APH is “I need more”….it’s not a complete history.  It jumps around to key points in history to tackle key events, key points in American history.  And it does this by utilizing primary sources…the words of the people who were there, in their writings, diaries, journals…that’s where the real history lies.  No middle man, let me read what Christopher Columbus wrote about the Native Americans in his own words, and dissect and interpret for myself.

As Howard Zinn Wrote in his chapter, “Columbus, The Indians, And Human Progress,”

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

“They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…. They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

From there, Columbus went on to vilify the Native Americans, and allow his men to do unspeakable (figuratively) atrocities to them, and to subjugate them for slaves and gold.  We are later in the same chapter treated to a 3rd party perspective of the effects Columbus had on the Arawak people from Bartolome De Las Casas:

“Endless testimonies . . . prove the mild and pacific temperament of the natives…. But our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians…”

Las Casas tells how the Spaniards “grew more conceited every day” and after a while refused to walk any distance. They “rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry” or were carried on hammocks by Indians running in relays. “In this case they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings.”

Total control led to total cruelty. The Spaniards “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Las Casas tells how “two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys.”

The best thing about A People’s History of the United States is that Howard Zinn did go on to give us more.  He later adapted the book for youth with “A Young People’s History of the United States“, which I’ve actually used in my own history classroom, paired with the standard bullshit textbook that I’ve taught from in 2 school districts in 2 totally different states.

And then there was “The People Speak“…I will let that speak for itself…

Yes, A Peoples History of the United States knocked me on my ass.  It opened my eyes…up until that point, all my history had been from the standard textbooks…and not that it’s “wrong”, but none of that is a complete picture.  Howard Zinn strove to offer the flip side of the coin.  It must be said that the dominant histories of our time were written by “white people”…so what would the history of the suffrage movement look like from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s perspective?  Or Susan B. Anthony?  What exactly does the abolitionist movement look like from the eyes of Frederick Douglass?

I encourage you to check out this book.  It’s one of those books that needs to come with all birth certificates.

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