March 12, 2009
Last month in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Voices of a People’s History, the groundbreaking show conceived by historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, and Anthony Arnove, co-editor of Voices of a People’s History and author of books including Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (New Press). Blending historical narrative with spoken word — and some spunky bluegrass performed by the San Francisco-based Stairwell Sisters — it was an event that, in one brisk hour, celebrated the power of protest and made manifest the best traditions of radical American thought, creativity, and dissent.
The show is brilliant for its simplicity: Take a handful of famous American texts (and several more obscure ones), some movies stars with radical politics (and a few non-actors), mix in some rabble-rousing music, and make sure the audience includes students, activists, and people who believed in hope and change before Obama came along. In San Francisco, the result was Diane Lane, playing writer and activist Mary Ellen Lease, crying, “We want the foreclosure system wiped out!” to thunderous applause, while reciting a speech called “Wall Street Owns the Country” (circa 1890). It was Kerry Washington deliver Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” — first spoken in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio — with ferocity and sass. It was “W” star Josh Brolin play the socialist Eugene Debs, hip-hop artist Boots Riley give Muhammad Ali’s speech against the Vietnam War, Benjamin Bratt, as Sgt. Camilo Mejia deliver his 2005 statement on GI resistance to the war in Iraq. The non-actors in the cast were equally impressive; Civil rights attorney Renee Maria Saucedo paid homage to the Latino youth of the country — and of Mission High School, where the show took place — as she delivered Chicana activist and writer Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez’s “Be Down With the Brown!” (Martinez herself was in the audience and got a standing ovation.) And union organizer Clarence Thomas, who powerfully embodied the spirit and wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. in “Beyond Vietnam,” also tapped into the urgency of people’s hope in Barack Obama — and what’s at stake — when he delivered Langston Hughes’s poem, “The Ballad of Roosevelt.” (“I am tired of waiting on Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt. Damned tired of waiting on Roosevelt. And a lot of other folks was hungry and cold, done stopped believing what they had been told by Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Roosevelt. Because the pot is still empty and the cupboard is still bare and you cannot build a bungalow out of air.”)
Howard Zinn, himself an icon of radical history at 86, kicked off the evening with humor and warmth, explaining that, as a historian and an academic, he never wanted to retreat into the past. “I wanted the voices of the past to come to the present,” he explained. “You go into the past and get lost. I want to get out of the past.” Zinn’s own rebellion has been to reimagine the conventions of his chosen profession. Alternate histories may seem less remarkable in an age where it is possible to buy books that tell the story of everything from coffee to cod. But A People’s History of the United States, which sold its one millionth copy in 2003 and has now hit the 2 million mark, first told the stories of American rebels past and present when the present included recent memories of segregation, Vietnam, and the murder of MLK. Voices has taken the documents of that and other eras of rebellion — the speeches, the poems, the songs — and breathed life into them.
I recently spoke to Howard Zinn over the phone from New York. He shared his thoughts on President Obama’s domestic and foreign policy, the best parts of the New Deal, what he hopes Voices will help accomplish, and why he believes Obama must face mass protest in order to steer the country in the right direction.
Liliana Segura: How did you decide to do Voices From a People’s History?
Howard Zinn: It really started way back … I wrote A People’s History with the idea of bypassing and ignoring the usual from-the-top-down treatment of American history. I wanted not to see American history from the viewpoint of people in authority — presidents and congressmen, generals and so on. I wanted to see American history from the standpoint of people who had been ommitted from textbooks.
I wrote the book in the late 1970s, and it came out of the movmenets of the 60s and 70s and my participation in those movements. I had spent years in the South involved in the civil rights movement and I was very conscious when I was there — I was teaching at a black college in Atlanta, Spellman College, and I was going around with SNICK (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). And as I was going around participating in various things, whether in Atlanta, or demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, or Selma, Alabama, or various towns in Mississippi, I was very much aware that all sorts of very fascinating things were going on. Fascinating figures were on the scene. And none of this was going to be reported in the mainstream media, because the mainstream media is only interested in big events and big people — even with movements they conventrate on the big events and big people.
Of course, having studied history, I knew how history was so often told from the standpoint of “this is the age of Jackson, this is the age of Roosevelt, this is the age of Wilson.” So I wanted to present the point of view of people ommitted from history, and the point of view of dissenters, of people who resisted, people who had to struggle for their rights and people who were not happy with the present situation — antiwar protesters and socialists and Native Americans who were resisting encroachment on their land. That was behind my writing of A People’s History.
We had our first public reading of these documents — I think I may have said something in San Francisco about the fact that my publishers at Harper Collins wanted to celebrate a million copies sold, and they wanted to do it by putting some historians on stage. And I said, no, please, don’t do that. Let’s have real history on the stage, presented by actors who will dramatize documents — and not the usual documents. You know, when I went to graduate school I was given a huge book called “Documents of American History” and it was all presidential speeches and legislative enactments.
So, we had this thing at the 92nd Street Y [in New York]. It was just before the beginning of the war in Iraq, in February 2003. We wanted to make the event relevant to what was going on. So when we had Kurt Vonnegut read Eugene Debs’s speech against World War I, it was also a speech against war in general.
LS: Watching Voices, one of the major impressions that stuck with me was how prescient some of these speeches are — it feels like we are dealing with some of the exact same challenges today — but also how much joy and energy there was in the perfomances. Has that surprised you at all?
Howard Zinn: It was a revelation. We didn’t know how people would react, didn’t know how audiences would react to the reading of documents, didn’t know how the actors would react themselves. And what has happened is that the audiences have been energized and I think, in many cases, inspired. We’ve had people come away from these readings saying, ‘it makes me want to get active and do things.’ And the actors themselves, they have been inspired. They’ve been coming back again and again.
When these actors do these performances, inevitibly they say, “Hey please, call us again.” And that’s why Kerry Washington, Josh Brolin, Viggo Mortenson, Danny Glover — they keep coming back again and again because they love to do this. And what is apparent is that people in the world of Hollywood and entertainment very often — most of the time, in fact — don’t get an opportunity to express what they really believe. And, you know, these are people with social consciences. So this is an opportunity for them to do that.
LS: Much of the performaces have to do with war — and the direction we’re headed in Afghanistan instantly leaps to mind. What do you think about Obama and the fact that he’s following the trajectory of the Bush administration with the whole “war on terror”? You endorsed him, right?
Howard Zinn: Endorsed Obama? (Laughs.) Yes — I endorsed Obama, I wanted him to win. I wanted Bush and Cheney out of there. I wanted change — and the truth is I didn’t have much choice. It was Bush or Obama. I chose Obama. And, in fact, I was hopeful. Not too hopeful, because I know something about American history. I know how much hope has resided in presidents, and I’m aware that presidents are political animals. I’m very much aware that Lincoln was a policitian and Roosevelt was a politician and, in fact, you might say the theme of my work is that we cannot depend on people in the White House. We can depend on people picketing the White House. So my attitude towards Obama has been watchful from the beginning in the sense that, okay, it’s good to have Obama in there, I’m glad that he aroused a lot of people getting people involved in politics — now I hope these people who have been aroused and energized will use that energy to push Obama in a direction different from the one he seems to be going in right now.
LS: I thought Clarence Thomas’s performance of “The Ballad of Roosevelt,” with that refrain, “Waiting on Roosevelt” really spoke powerfully to the moment we’re in. What do you think about the comparisons between Obama and Roosevelt that came up following the election?
Howard Zinn: It’s interesting, you know, if Langston Hughes were around, we could have a poem, “Waiting on Obama.” But the difference is, we shouldn’t be waiting on Obama. We should be informing Obama that we expect more from him than he has done so far. Now, he has done some things that have moved in the right direction on domestic policy. In terms of the federal government taking a more aggressive stand in creating jobs, calling for a tax policy that will be directed at taking money from the richest one percent of the population, and easing the tax burden on other people, some of the initiatives he’s taken have been good.
But his domestic policies are not bold enough. He is still doing too much through the market system, through private enterprise. For instance, right now he is having a a big conference with people who are giving him advice on the health system. But he has not shown an inclination to do what the public really wants and what is absolutely neeeded, and that is to institute a government-financed health system which will bypass the insurance companies — the kind of system they have in Canada, and France, Italy, New Zealand. He’s not shown the boldness necessary in certain domestic programs, even though as I say, he’s moving little bit at a time in the right direction.
The economic situation is so bad. Although it’s not as bad as it was in 1932, it’s bad enough that it calls for bolder domestic measures. It calls for the government to institute, as Roosevelt did in his first couple years, a huge jobs program. The federal government under Roosevelt gave jobs to six million people; if you did it proporational to population, Obama would be creating a jobs program that would give jobs to ten million peope. He’s very far from that. If he were bold enough, he would be instituting a federal arts program — one of the very best things that came out of the New Deal — where artists and musicians and writers and poets would be given jobs by the government to do the things they wanted to do. These are people who are bypassed by the market system. Artists struggle and they have to take other meanigless jobs in order to continue to do their art. And that’s all, as I said, with his domestic policy.
With his foreign policy, unfortunately, he shows no signs of departing from the traditional militarism of the Democratic and Republican parties. The idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan is disastrous, really absurd. I mean, almost as soon as he came into office he sent missiles into Pakistan. Civilians were killed. The whole tone of foreign policy, adding more soldiers, leaving 50,000 in Iraq even after withdrawing them in 16 months, all of this is very bad. And, therefore, he’s going to need a great big push — protest, really. He’s going to need demonstrations and protest and letters and petitions. He’s going to have to face the kind of agitation that Roosevelt faced when he came into office.
LS: You have performances of Voices scheduled in different cities across the country. Given that you feel that we need protest and organizing and a real anti-war effort, do you hope that Voices will serve as an organizing tool as well as an educational tool?
Howard Zinn: Yes — we are — that’s what we hope for, that’s why we are doing these things. We’re not doing them just to entertain people. (Laughs.) We want to entertain people — if they’re not entertained they won’t listen — but, yes, we want people to come away from these readings, just as I wanted people to come away from my book, really anxious, eager to participate, understanding that if they don’t, we are headed for disaster. And if they want their children and children’s children to live in a better world then they’d better get active and take a chunk out of the time that they’re devoting to the rest of their lives and devote it to changing the world.
LS: Do you see any hopeful parallels between the kind of organizing that you saw decades ago and the organizing that some of the organizing that is going on now?
Howard Zinn: Yes, I do see parallels. We’re still at the early stage of it. We haven’t reached that level of action and organization and protest that we had in the 1960s, but as I go around the country I do see everywhere, there’s a nucleus of a larger movement. There’s a promise of a national movement in the fact that in every community I’ve been in there have been organizations and people who are active and doing things. So I’m hopeful, yes.
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