Voices of A People’s History of the United States is a new companion anthology to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present. The new anthology expands upon A People’s History by moving, as Zinn puts it, by moving away from his commentary and instead giving prominence to the eloquent voices that make up the history of resistance in the United States. According to Zinn, many of his readers have not been struck so much by his commentary as they have by his inclusion of quotes by participants in the various stories he has told. Zinn wants to illuminate what he terms the “hidden resistance” throughout the history of the United States, emphasizing that while the decisions and actions of the elite have always had the attention of the media and subsequently the history books, there has always been a domestic resistance to the policies of the United States government. Arguing that a “nationalist fervor” has inserted itself in the education system in the United States, specifically in the teaching of history, Zinn argues that the teaching of history often specifically excludes the stories of everyday people and how they have been able to organize and change society, as that would be dangerous to the elite, and instead creating a “passive citizenry” that does not know its own power, believing that only the actions of a “savior on high” can improve its standing.
Over two-hundred documents are featured in Voices of a People’s History starting with an account of Christopher Columbus’ destruction of the Arawak people upon his arrival and concluding with Patti’s Smith’s song “The People have the Power” and the protest movements against George W. Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq. In between these two documents the pages are full of histories of both well-known rebel figures such as Martin Luther King, Emma Goldman, Fredrick Douglass, John Brown, Eugene Debs, and Malcom X as well as the stories of a number of “ordinary” people who looked at the world around them and realized that it was their duty to work towards changing it for the better. It is these histories, those of the everyday people pushed to resistance, that prove to be the most interesting and inspiring; and without Voices of a People’s History such accounts would probably be lost amidst methods of history that largely focus on teaching the history of so-called “great white men” who were either generals or politicians. Zinn not only explores well-known periods of popular resistance such as the abolitionist movement, the Populist and Progressive eras, the antiwar activity at the outset of World War I, and the widespread resistance during the Civil Rights movement and the other movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, but he has also included a number of documents that shatter many of the mythologies of American history. The realities of what Zinn dubs the “half revolution” at the country’s founding, the horrible defeats for progressive causes during the Clinton presidency, and the opposition to World War II, just to name a few, are all exposed through the inclusion of copious dissenting voices. These voiced are organized into twenty-four chapters, with each chapter and document prefaced by a clear and concise introduction that gives enough information for readers to place them in their proper context.
Voices of a People’s History of the United States is an important anthology, imparting upon readers a much better notion of what is American history than the rather dismal anthologies that have been used over the past century to teach students at the university and high school levels. Both students of history and those interested in understanding how the origins of the United States shape our present reality will benefit from reading Voices of a People’s History. Moreover, the stories contained within provide a significant amount of inspiration for those who continue the struggle today, allowing us to both take inspiration from past successes and move forward from the failures of past movements.
Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of A People’s History of the United States, (Seven Stories Press, 2004).