In Memoriam – Howard Zinn
Why Howard Zinn Will Never Die
I was reading Stephen Burt’s Close Calls with Nonsense, sitting outside on a bench, in the unusual rain, rainy days are alien in Arizona, waiting at the end of the campus mall for my brother to pick me up for lunch. While I had heard of Zinn’s death, it hadn’t quite hit me. I got in the car and my brother said, “it’s so sad.” He was listening to Amy Goodman playing interviews of him and commentary by former students. Interspersed between familiar Zinn epithets, the kind that challenge you to reevaluate if your ethics match your action, ask you if you are doing enough to be a responsible citizen, a humane person, statements like “every war is a children’s war”, a former student said, “Zinn wasn’t just my teacher, he was everyone’s teacher.”
On my first day of college my English teacher asked us to read the first chapter of Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States. Not unlike most college educated Americans of my generation, I entered university with the idea that I would be there for four years, learn some things, get my paper validation and then earn enough to support myself and a family. I was raised on Abercrombie, Big Macs, and the realized dream of the heightened (white) middle class family at the end of the Clinton years (beginning Bush years, but we were all still in denial). Excess was success, and it seemed at that time that it was not only possible, but was almost guaranteed bearing a college degree. When I went home that day, sat down at my desk in my dorm room and picked up the chapter my teacher had photocopied, my concrete ideas (things seem pretty set in stone when you are 18) about my future and identity were not challenged, more or less they were pulverized. My entire education, education being the history of my life, like the lie of Columbus historicized singularly as hero and great founder of America came into question. I expanded and I trembled at the idea that human beings, particularly educated ones, could, and should have ethical concerns about the way they live and how the world operates. It was my first intellectual discovery!
I didn’t really know what that was, all I knew is that if Columbus could be both hero and villain, then the human condition entailed a great deal more than I thought previously required. Zinn instilled within me intellectual curiosity, he introduced me to social consciousness. As soon as I knew it existed I had to get one. I’ve pretty much spent the last 7 years trying to find it. He spent his life aspiring for the same thing, and if that is not the definition of “academic” and “teacher”, it is at least, if not more admirable, the act of being a humane individual.
That’s the reason Howard Zinn, the author, historian, political figure, lecturer, and most of all teacher, will never die. He stands for that little piece of our soul that begs our mind to challenge ourselves to act more humanely to our fellow (wo)man. He is that piece of decency that drives Humanities teachers out of their bed too early in the morning, with too little pay, to ask their students what they ask of themselves every day, to think, analyze, assume agency in an otherwise unforgiving world.
When my brother and I were done with lunch I rushed back to campus to photocopy that same first chapter I read 7 years ago for my English class. I scrapped the lesson plan for the day and wrote on the board, “What does it mean to be American? and more importantly What does it mean to be human?”, and we read Zinn.