If you haven’t yet heard, Howard Zinn passed away yesterday. Zinn is one of a small handful of people who I can without doubt say has played a huge role in my life, which is pretty incredible because I’m certain there are about a million other people who can say the same thing.
When I was on the cusp of failing high school, I first came across A People’s History. I still remember how quickly I tore through the entire book (and it’s a long book), and how this helped redefine history for me as something that was both fascinating and subversive. As Clara Sparks once said, “The long memory is the most radical idea in America.”
History before had been mind-numbingly dull, so I skipped most classes (I had it last period) to instead go surfing. But after high school I got a job delivering pizza for Round Table, and would spend my down time reading history books in a booth while sucking down soda. I read a lot of Howard Zinn at Round Table, and Zinn led me to many other historians and journalists…and, well, that ball has kept rolling.
Then, when I was searching around for a publisher for my book about organizing, Calling All Radicals, I heard back from Howie Zinn–as his friends called him–who offered very kind words and wrote a great blurb for the book. That blurb helped me land an agent, which helped me get published, which got me in no small measure to where I am today.
As it happens, Howard Zinn makes an appearance in Working in the Shadows. While I was working delivery in New York, there was an event in Manhattan in honor of Studs Terkel, who had just passed. It was an early evening event on a Sunday, and though I was late for work I stuck around for Zinn. To hear Zinn speak was to realize that being left-wing didn’t have to mean being self-righteous, or grating, or off-putting. Zinn was himself, light-hearted but also serious, modest yet clearly wise. I’m sure many people will write about Zinn in the days and weeks to come, and while I mourn his passing I also look forward to reading these accounts. I also look forward to someday telling my own kid about this skinny man with wispy white hair, and handing over a dogeared copy of A People’s History.
A good friend heads up the Zinn Education Project, which works to get A People’s History into middle and high school classrooms. If anything could have improved my grades in high school (and it’s possible that nothing could have), it would have been coming across that book earlier. For more information about the project you can go here.