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A Study Group for Zinn's People's History

people's history


April 8th, 2007

Chapter 6


Something bothered me about this chapter. I think it was the way that Zinn positioned the experiences of blacks as slaves and the experiences of women as the same ("In this invisibility they were something like black slaves" p. 81). I can obviously agree that women were oppressed. I don't think that it is a problem to compare the situations, but only if they are contrasted as well. The way that Zinn ends the chapter with Sojourner Truth's quote confused me. His conclusions, that she "joined the indignation of her race to the indignation of her sex"  did not match up with mine. I interpretted her quote to say "Hey, what about black women?" Even if that was not the intention of her words, it still left me thinking "what about black women?" I felt that Zinn painted women and blacks with too broad a stroke where women = white and black = men.

April 7th, 2007

Chapters 6 and 7

I have nothing profound to say about Chapters 6 and 7, either. I am curious, however, to know whether the role of American (Caucasian) women in the Abolitionist movement was indeed disproportionate to their power in the political sphere overall. Zinn hints that this may be the case, but doesn't really back up that line of thought with much evidence.

That brings me to my greatest criticism of A People's History: Zinn seems to rely too heavily on anecdotes, rather than the general facts-and-figures type of evidence, to back up his points. I admit that hearing the actual words of the people makes for more exciting reading, but he argues most powerfully when he includes survey data, e.g., "Colonial newspapers reported a total of N slave insurrections between 1700 and 1850." Perhaps I'm biased toward big numbers because I'm a statistician by trade. However, in our current society, the FOX-thinker belief that any opinion, no matter how far-fetched (e.g., intelligent design or the "Apollo hoax"), deserves equal time with ideas backed by overwhelming evidence has become distressingly prevalent; and in consequence, when making an argument counter to mainstream thought, one should be careful to substantiate it thoroughly. (Or not: mere facts won't likely sway the minds of anyone who has had their thinking done for them already. Sigh. But at least the pool of ignorant-but-open-minded Americans may be receptive to a well-documented argument.)

March 7th, 2007

Since this is a Zinnfest and all. ;) A great speech by the Zinn himself.

Federal Bureau of Intimidation
Howard Zinn


I thought it would be good to talk about the FBI because they talk about us. They don't like to be talked about. They don't even like the fact that you're listening to them being talked about. They are very sensitive people. If you look into the history of the FBI and Martin Luther King-which now has become notorious in that totally notorious history of the FBI- the FBI attempted to neutralize, perhaps kill him, perhaps get him to commit suicide, certainly to destroy him as a leader of black people in the United States. And if you follow the progression of that treatment of King, it starts, not even with the Montgomery Bus Boycott; it starts when King begins to criticize the FBI. You see, then suddenly Hoover's ears, all four of them, perk up. And he says, okay, we have to start working on King.
Read more...Collapse )

March 6th, 2007

hey zinnsters,

this was posted in ap_racismso some of you may have already seen it. it seems relevent to our readings.

The need for White History
Whatever happened to James Blake? He is probably the most famous bus driver ever. And yet when he died at age 89 in March 2002, the few papers that bothered to note his passing in an obituary ran just a few hundred words of wire copy and moved on.

Given that February is Black History Month, it is worth taking a moment to ask how such a crucial figure could be so cruelly forgotten.

Blake was the Montgomery driver who told a row of black passengers: "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Rosa Parks was one of those passengers. She made her stand and kept her seat. The rest, as they say, is history.

Well, black history anyway. We know how African-Americans boycotted city transit for 13 months until the segregationists caved in. We know how the boycott launched the career of a previously unheard-of preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. and made Parks an icon. In schools, bookstores and on TV there is an awful lot of talk about them in February. But nary a word about Mr. Blake. That's because so much of Black History Month takes place in the passive voice. Leaders "get assassinated," patrons "are refused" service, women "are ejected" from public transport. So the objects of racism are many but the subjects few. In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.

From: http://metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=10228

my thoughts: it helps make clear why it is so easy for white people to distance themselves and say things like "why don't they just get over it already." to white people, bad things happened to POC by some nebulous bad people in the past. there is no recognition of who those people were, because as younge says, their stories are never told. the depersonalization helps whites continue to shirk any kind of responsibility, not only for the negatives in history, but also for the present and future inequalities.

ch. 4 & 5

Chapter 4

I was especially struck by the first paragraph. 

Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power...In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of populr support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.

This is so contrary to the rhetoric that we so often hear about the founding of our country and all the freedoms that it stands for. Especially how the revolution was used as a way to stave off other rebellions. It was, in a sense, a way to funnel the energy in a way that suited the most powerful colonists. 

On page 56, Zinn talks about how "some Americans were clearly omitted from this circle of united interest drawn by the Declaration of Independence: Indians, black slaves, women." My reaction to this was "Some?! How about MOST." I think even Zinn falls into the trap of presenting the powerful few as the majority, when in fact they are the minority. I also wondered at what point Zinn and people living in the U.S. during this time period started referring to themselves and being referred to as "Americans." Was there common agreement as to who "Americans" were? Zinn lumps "Indians" in with "Americans," but is this really how the term was thought of at the time?

Chapter 5

I thought that looking at the constitution from the viewpoint of economic interests was interesting. On page 68, Zinn references Charles Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution." It's funny how revered the constitution is by Americans as a document almost akin to the Bible. No wonder we aren't taught Beard's argument in school. 

Zinn talks about how the constitution serves the interests of elites, but does enough for small property owners building a broad based support on page 75. Again, interesting because this really sets up the way that the country is today. The middle class with all of their "American dreams" protect the elite from the destitute, disenfranchized masses. The hope of the middle class that they too can be elites and the hope of the poor that they can win the lottery and join the ranks of the elites keeps the system in place requiring little work from the elites themselves. 

I was never really sold on America as the great land of the free, but still I found these chapters to be quite depressing. One of the depressing parts is that the majority of people believe the fairy tale version of the U.S. being for everyone and the fact that so many cling to this makes it hard to have critical discussions of why things are the way they are. Chances of things changing so that the balance of power shifts away from the elites and reflects the America that most Americans believe in without a revolution are slim to none. And the chance that enough Americans will get off their asses and demand change are just as unlikely. 


January 28th, 2007

I found Chapters 2 and 3 quite illuminating: I would not have guessed that we could draw any strong parallels between the society of the American colonies 300 years ago and modern-day America, but here we can see at least two. First, as chreebomb has already mentioned, is the strategy of playing underpriveleged groups off against one another. Racism, as a means of providing the poor whites a false sense of superiority, continued unabated after the Civil War and persists today. (I'm not an expert on white-supremacy groups in the US, but from what I have read on the Web sites of such organizations and elsewhere, it seems that the bulk of the diehard racists spend most of their time in trailer parks and in prison, even if their leaders do not.)

However, in Chapter 3 we also see a trend that I believe is much more important at the present, i.e., the upper class making token concessions to the emerging middle class in order to gain their support. It doesn't require too much cynicism to perceive that the rich and powerful, even today, throw the middle class just enough bones to keep us pacified and to draw our attention from what's really going on. Yes, the overall standard of living has increased dramatically within the last century, but I would argue that this is a result of advances in science (especially medicine) and technology, and not in any leveling of the economic playing field. In the old days, servants received guns and dry goods upon finishing their terms of service; these days, we have satellite TV, cheap oil and $500-a-child tax credits. "Here's your $300 check—a gift from Uncle Sam! You wouldn't mind bending over a little more, would you?"

We can, perhaps, see a mixing of both tactics in the attitude of the middle class toward the poor. George Carlin, hardly a historian, nevertheless summed up this idea pretty well (I'm paraphrasing here, sorry): "The rich have all of the money and pay none of the taxes. The middle class pay all the taxes and do all of the work. And the poor are there to scare the shit out of the middle class!"

I was impressed with one specific passage in Chapter 2, as well, which told of a Portuguese minister writing back to ascertain the Church's official position on slavery. Strangely enough, slavery turned out to be just fine with the Church. I can't figure out what the clergy would gain by generally refusing to speak out against slavery. It seems like the Catholic church could have stomped out that sort of thing very quickly after Columbus's first voyage; and although the ministry was very well represented among American abolitionists, the full power of the religious establishment was never brought to bear on the problem of Black slavery. How come?

January 24th, 2007

Chapter 2 and such

I wish I had my book with me, but reading is done at home and posting is done at work.

I finished Chapter 2 last night and about half of Chapter 3. I really love this book. It's so full of information that I wish we taught in elementary school, you know?

Zinn does such a great job of illustrating just how poor whites and African slaves were forcibly segregated in a successful divide-and-conquer effort. I think an important point that he brings up is that Africans had been enslaved already for 100 years in other colonies, so it's unlikely that Africans brought to the US were considered anything but slaves. It helps with the whole, "where did racism start?" question that I seem to hear a lot. Or the "but whites were slaves too!" argument.

On the subject of slavery, he illustrates the differences in slavery in US and in Africa quite well, and does a decent job of debunking the "but they enslaved themselves" argument.

The only critique I have of this Chapter-and-a-half is that it seems to lack an indigenous perspective. I remember that he concentrates on Native peoples when colonization began, but this section seemed lacking. He only touches on Indian topics in talking about the frontier folks and such. I would have liked to see inclusion of how the expansion of whites deeper into the continent and the importation of Africans as slaves impacted indigenous peoples.

But maybe that's coming. :)

November 22nd, 2006

The Onion posted an article relevant to this month's chapter today.

November 14th, 2006

Howdy all! I finished the first chapter a while back, but have been out of town for the last several days. (I'm actually writing this entry in a hotel room in Tampa, FL.)

I'd already read some about atrocities committed against the native South Americans by the Spaniards, but I didn't know just how extensively Columbus himself was involved. It sounds as though he set the tone for the future exploitation of the South and Central Americans. And here I was thinking that the main objection to Columbus Day (a state holiday in Ohio, but not Washington State) was that Columbus symbolized the Native American genocide, instead of having instigated it.

What outrages me the most about both Spanish and English settlers, but especially the Spanish, is their colossal arrogance. Considering themselves God's emissaries, they obviously felt they had some sort of holy mandate to subjugate the New World in the name of God and Jesus. (I'd like to add a quote here from Guns, Germs and Steel, but I'm currently some 1,100 miles south of my copy.)

As a scientist, I have to weigh in on how the natives of both American continents were mostly wiped out soon after the arrival of the conquistadores. I think Zinn understates the role of infectious diseases in drastically reducing the native populations. He mentions smallpox, but in fact measles was nearly as deadly to a fairly dense population with no prior exposure. (Even in modern times, according to the CDC, measles is surprisingly often: about 1 in 450 victims in the US during the epidemic of 1989-1991 died of the disease. Everyone caught up on their MMR?) The pandemics raged ahead of European conquest into the interior of the continents, so that later European explorers found those regions very sparsely populated. Perhaps the major "justification" for European exploitation of the New World was that the Indians weren't taking full advantage of the available resources. Well, yes—when 95% of a population adequately supported by a continent's natural resources are killed off by disease, the remaining 5% aren't going to make a huge dent in Nature's bounty.

November 12th, 2006

(no subject)

I totally did my homework, y'all. Most of the first several chapters will be a re-read for me, but I spent the afternoon revisiting chapter 1. So I just thought I should post and see if people wanted to begin the discussion. I'm terrible at this sort of thing, but I wanted to throw my hat into the ring.

First, the obvious: although I'm many years' past my grade/middle school American history education, it is still striking how different the experience is. (For one thing, history used to bore the pants off of me - I never studied it closely and found the texts unbearable. Maybe that was for the best, considering the misinformation in many of those books!) I like how Zinn frames his argument in chapter 1, explaining the importance of taking on this "new" perspective instead of relying upon the usual top-down approach. I personally find his approach very open-ended and deliberately, cautiously diplomatic (probably because he knew he'd be criticized by more conventional scholars for conveying a biased/"liberal" viewpoint, as though other historians themselves do not have an opinion about the events they recount!) - I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of not glossing over the genocide and atrocities committed in the name of money, land and religion. (Duh.)

What I am most curious to find out is how his evaluation of the past will or should impact our understanding of present events. He doesn't appear to be seeking to instill non-productive retroactive hand-wringing or mourning about the events he describes, although one could certainly argue that such reflection is necessary (and inevitable) once you grasp the enormity of these events. And certainly, it sheds light on the present. Which brings me to my next question: which edition is everyone reading? My copy evidently includes the added chapters about the Clinton administration, the '00 election, and the "war on terror." I've read some of Noam Chomsky's work about 9/11 et al, and I'm interested to see Zinn's thoughts on that as well.

Sorry for the lack of substance...!
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