The following academic paper highlights the up-to-date issues and questions of Zinn Chapter 1. This sample provides just some ideas on how this topic can be analyzed and discussed.
Howard Zinn is arguably the most important American historian. He brought a radical transformation to the construction of history that was previously unheard of. By siding with the oppressed, the underprivileged, the victims, the poor and the weak, he made their voices heard through his writing. The People’s History of the United States is a landmark scholarly achievement in this regard.
It ushered in the trend of subaltern study and analysis to history departments in American Colleges (although many major educational institutions have not yet embraced this book). More importantly, the book has brought balance to historical recounting of events, where erstwhile only the elite point of view was accepted and made available to the public. In this context it is interesting to scrutinize the rationale and the thought process of the author in his choice of chapter titles and their contents.
The rest of this essay is an attempt to do the same with respect to the first five chapters of the book in question.
The first chapter is titled ‘Columbus, the Indians and Human Progress’. Irony is writ large in this title, as the contents of this chapter are about one of the greatest undertakings of genocide in human history. With wry humor and a deep sense of loss, the conscientious Howard Zinn reminds us that the so-called ‘discovery’ of America is as much the ‘decimation’ of indigenous peoples of the land.
Columbus Day is taught to young kids as a day of celebration and patriotic reminiscence. But as Zinn offers by way of copious factual evidence, starting from the islands of the Caribbean to lands in central America to later landings in Jamestown, Virginia, the European ‘discovery’ of America in unequivocally the start of the demise of native cultures and populations that had rightfully claimed it its home. (Chapter 1, page 7) The term ‘human progress’ is again included for its irony, for, the European settlers invariably carried out systematic displacement, enslavement and massacre of native Indians – all under the noble guise of ‘human progress’. In fact, Christopher Columbus and subsequent Spanish conquistadors in South America sincerely seemed to have believed that they were acting the will of Jesus Christ even as they were ordering the most heinous of crimes. (Chapter 1, page 9)
The second chapter is titled ‘Drawing the Color Line’. This is a straight forward title representing one of the earliest and deep-rooted malice in American society – that of racism. The skin color of the native Indians as well as African slaves were both taken as sufficient justification for their subordinate status. As the opening lines to the chapter notes,
“There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States. And the problem of “the color line,” as W. E. B. Du Bois put it, is still with us. So it is more than a purely historical question to ask: How does it start?—and an even more urgent question: How might it end? Or, to put it differently: Is it possible for whites and blacks to live together without hatred?” (Chapter 2, p.61)
Right from the days of early corn and tobacco plantations in Jamestown, the labor force for working on these plantations were developed on color lines. The blacks and natives were recognized for their physical strength and dexterity to do farm work. Even between the two groups, blacks were preferred to the natives for reasons of pride. It is documented by early pioneers, how, despite their superior technology and civilization, European settlers could not compete on equal terms in taming the land and availing of its resources. Native Indians were masters at exploiting natural resources to their best advantage. The challenges of early settlers were largely to stave off starvation in light of lack of agricultural expertise. Hurt by pride to learn from the natives and adopt their savage way of life, the settlers wanted a captive labor force to create subsistence crops. African slaves provided the answer for this need. And ever since, the American population has remained divided across this ‘color line’. Hence Zinn’s references this term.
“This unequal treatment, this developing combination of contempt and oppression, feeling and action, which we call “racism”—was this the result of a “natural” antipathy of white against black? The question is important, not just as a matter of historical accuracy, but because any emphasis on “natural” racism lightens the responsibility of the social system.” (Chapter 2, page 80)
Chapter 3 is titled ‘Persons of Mean and Vile Condition’. The persons of such abomination were none other than disadvantaged white settlers. The title is instructive of how the ruling elite can arbitrarily assign negative labels to groups they find inferior or un-cooperative. Here, the persons of ‘mean and vile condition’ are disgruntled white settlers pushed to the corners of the Western frontier, near to the Appalachians. They were treated as second class citizens as they were not allowed ownership of land in the more fertile Eastern regions. This gave rise to a stead accumulation of feelings of resentment and disappointment, the culmination of which was the outright militant rebellion mastered by Nathaniel Bacon. Indeed, a whole century prior to the revered American Declaration of Independence, Bacon and his contingency had given their own manifesto titled Declaration of the People. (Chapter 3, page 106) In many ways this document has more democratic credentials than its famous successor. Yet that is not how the agents of the British Crown would like to paint this uprising. Instead the participants of this legitimate uprising, borne out of perceived injustice, were marked as ‘persons of mean and vile condition’. It must be noted though that Bacon and his supporters were as much victims as victimizers, for they took out their grievances against the Crown on the innocent Indians. This duplicity and flaw is alluded to by Zinn in the following passage:
“‘The Bacon’s “Declaration of the People’ of July 1676 shows a mixture of populist resentment against the rich and frontier hatred of the Indians. It indicted the Berkeley administration for unjust taxes, for putting favorites in high positions, for monopolizing the beaver trade, and for not protecting the western farmers from the Indians. Then Bacon went out to attack the friendly Pamunkey Indians, killing eight, taking others prisoner, plundering their possessions.” (Chapter 3, page 106)