Illustration from Razorcake #55 by Brad Beshaw
Celebrity deaths elicit some strange reactions. I sometimes get wrapped up in mourning the loss and forget that I didn’t know the person. I was hit pretty hard by the deaths of Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone, even though I’d never met them and had no intention of meeting them. I have to remember that the things I love about those guys still exist very much in the present. I can listen to them sing any time I want to. And, let’s face it, the grand productive days were over for those two. As decent as their final releases were, neither of them was going to produce another Give ‘Em Enough Rope or End of the Century.
Maybe the fact that three of the original Ramones are dead and all of the original Eagles are still alive is proof that, if a god does exist, he’s a bit of a dick. Nonetheless, the point remains that celebrity deaths need to be taken with a grain of salt. But I’m struggling over this most recent one.
On January 27, 2010, we lost Howard Zinn. Among other things, Zinn is the author of A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present, which is probably the most comprehensive history of Americans who fought against racism, sexism, imperialism, and classism; of Native Americans who refused to be annihilated, of African Americans who refused to be dehumanized, of women who refused to be the second sex, of citizens who fought against wars rather than in them, and of workers who fought against exploitation. I remember my first time reading A People’s History. It was about a dozen years ago. I was living in a small town in Florida, working as a construction supervisor. The eight-hundred page tome rode shotgun with me as I drove my truck from jobsite to jobsite. I read snatches of it during breaks, eating lunch, waiting for subcontractors to show up, or sitting in my thrift-store recliner in my one-bedroom apartment. It was a time in my life when I felt particularly powerless. Although most of the construction workers viewed me as a boss, I had no real authority. I made less money than most of the skilled workers (many of whom were less skilled than me), and it was becoming more and more clear to me that I was just fuel in a generator that powered the banking and insurance industries—the ones who really make the money in construction. I’d spent a decade trying to get out of these kinds of jobs. I’d gotten two college degrees (a bachelor’s and a master’s). I’d published my first novel. And I still found myself in a low rent apartment in a white trash neighborhood, living a life that most of America feels comfortable calling white trash. Amid this atmosphere, A People’s History was empowering.
Zinn, like all historians, tells history from his point of view. His values are reflected in whom he chooses as historically significant and what events he chooses to focus on. Unlike most histories that I was familiar with, though, Zinn focused on people like me. He was less concerned with presidents, generals, and leaders of business (unless he was knocking them off their pedestals). Instead, he acknowledged that real change comes from the bottom up. While Abraham Lincoln may have signed the bill that freed the slaves, he didn’t do it out of a deep-seeded belief in social justice. He did it as a response to an overwhelming resistance movement that fought against slavery, be it through the dozens of violent slave uprisings throughout the South, the Quaker network of safe houses for escaped slaves, the challenges to the Fugitive Slave Act, or the narratives of writers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. In most cases, politicians don’t act. They react. And their reactions are often based the uprisings and resistance movements of ordinary people.
Think for a few seconds about how significant this perspective is. In the American educational system, we’re taught to look for heroes. Christopher Columbus discovers America. George Washington wins the American Revolution. Abraham Lincoln frees the slaves. General MacArthur leads the Good War and defeats fascism. Martin Luther King gives a few speeches and ends racism. This type of mythology pervades our national consciousness. It is manifested in our movies, where the action movie genre is dedicated to promoting the myth that a single man (with the right amount of firepower and a few inhuman stunts) can simplify any complex concept and solve it himself, while we get to sit idly by, eating popcorn and drinking soda. And we believe it. Sometimes, we even elect one of those action heroes as governor. Or we elect Obama president and expect him to give us jobs and money, take on the health care industry, and end two wars by himself. And when Schwarzenegger proves to be exactly the idiot he sounds like, and Obama demonstrates that the president of the United States can’t solve all our problems, we blame the men themselves without questioning the underlying myth that enabled us to place these unrealistic expectations on them.
We also ignore our personal responsibility.
So for me, reading A People’s History a dozen years ago hammered home the point that I had to take responsibility for my own actions. I couldn’t just sit around my low rent apartment and complain about the system and its injustices. Or I could. It just didn’t do anyone any good. What I needed to do, instead, was get off my ass and fight for what I believed in. And I had to do it as a lifestyle change—something I could do every day.
I looked at how Zinn fought for what he believed in and noticed that he stuck with his strengths. He worked for social justice as a historian, as a speaker, as a writer, and as a teacher. And I thought to myself, what are my strengths? Well, both of my degrees were in writing, so I needed to stick with that. And I was an excellent student and researcher. I was comfortable talking in front of a crowd, and I could articulate my ideas verbally. In short, though history isn’t my discipline, many of my strengths were similar to Zinn’s. So I could use him as a role-model.
I picked the issues that were important to me to fight for. I wanted (and still want) a free media, and I couldn’t just kill Rupert Murdoch like some action film hero would (and even if I could, I’d have to remember that his real power comes from his legions of followers, not from Murdoch himself). But I could co-found this here punk rock magazine. I could write hundreds of essays and stories for dozens of independent magazines. I could write books that dealt with American classism and get them published on indie presses. And so I did. My writing may not have the impact that Zinn’s has, but I’m doing about as well as he was doing at my age. If I stay on his schedule, I have twenty-one more years to come up with my equivalent of A People’s History. I have forty-eight more years to become the cultural force that he is today.
The second issue I chose to fight was this creation of the Superman myth that enables us to deify men like Washington, Lincoln, and Obama while ignoring our own personal responsibility. Because the second really significant thing I got out of A People’s History was that, historically speaking, people like me have mattered. I do matter. I don’t need a hero to free me or a politician to give me hope. I can take care of these things myself.
One thing traditional histories do is make people like you and me feel insignificant. In all likelihood, second graders of the future are not going to be learning about us. Punk rock probably won’t even be a footnote in texts in fifty years. But we can ask, whose traditions guide these traditional histories? How can we change them? How can we write a history that defies the myth of super humans and empowers those second graders?
So, along these lines, I’ve spent the last six years at a state university, developing my own personal pedagogy of social justice, one that explores the literature of writers who resisted the powers that were. About twenty-percent of my students will go on to be K-12 teachers here in California. Hopefully, by learning to question some of these myths that continue to be perpetuated in our public school system, my students will decide to stop perpetuating them.
Of course, here I am at the end of my column, one which started out seemingly eulogizing Howard Zinn, and I’ve hardly talked about the guy at all. I haven’t talked about his amazing career, his wonderful books, or so many things that made him great. I haven’t even talked about the time I spent with him—because I actually did meet him and spend time with him. He was nice enough to stay in touch with me for a little bit after that. He even blurbed one of my books for me. He was a great human being. But, first of all, I’ve already written quite a bit about Zinn in Razorcake (see, for instance, the interview Todd and I did with him in issue #6, my story about that interview in issue #31, plus the multiple reviews I did of his work in other issues). And, second of all, it would be contradictory to write a eulogy that puts Zinn on a pedestal while I compliment him for teaching me that no one belongs on a pedestal. So, instead, I just want to take this moment to thank him, a couple of months too late, for teaching me that I have the power to change my own life.
Thanks, Howard. I miss you already.
Author’s note: This is the nineteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #55. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.