The “People’s Historian”
Last Wednesday was, of course, President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address. And while coverage of the speech filled up the news cycle, there was another important story not to be forgotten: the passing of Howard Zinn.
Zinn was a renowned historian, activist, and author of A People’s History of the United States, which presented many of the unheard and undocumented stories of U.S. history. Zinn continued to pursue this course throughout the rest of his life, and in a 2008 interview said that he hoped to be remembered for “introducing a different way of thinking about the world.”
Last year a friend invited me to see Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States — one of a series of performances that brought the stories of A People’s History to life through public readings. Rather than bring a troupe of actors with him, Zinn collected an impressive array of local performers, with a variety of different skill levels and delivery styles. Included in the evening were reenactments of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?,” Maria Stewart’s “Address Delivered at the African Masonic Hall in Boston” and Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”
But the part I found most stirring was a breathtaking delivery of Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (you can watch Brian Jones performing the same speech below). On a day that many Americans were celebrating, Douglass delivered a scathing indictment of slavery in America:
“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
For me, this memory takes the confluence of Zinn’s passing and Obama’s address from coincidence to something more meaningful. At first, there is an irony in the fact that a man whose life was devoted to telling the stories of the oppressed was, on his death, nearly eclipsed by the first black president of the United States. And, on the eve of Black History Month, Douglass’ words remind us how far we’ve progressed since his time. It also gives a biting reminder of the problems yet to be overcome and the inconsolable history we continue live with as a nation.