Last week at Evergreen State College, at the exact time he was scheduled to speak, we held a Celebration of Life Memorial for Howard Zinn.
It was a small ritual.
We listened to him; we listened to each other read from him, and reminisce about small moments with him; and we watched a video of him giving a short lecture given in these last months before his death.
I spoke briefly of the time I saw him, when he was in his 70s at New York Public Library, and how it struck me that for a man who wrote such essentially confrontational books, he was so gentle and humble. I then read excerpts from Artists in Times of War, including his statement that it is the job of artists to say what no one else will say.
I made the program, the flyer, and I supplied the candle – a white one in a glass jar, which I bought at the only thing close to a bodega that we have in this town. A people’s candle. I thought Howard would like it.
I rubbed the outside of it clean, thinking of him, this tribute to him, the light he brought, and gave to all of us.
Afterwards, I spent time with a friend of mine from France. He soared through a brilliant, animated one could say People’s History of Europe, from the 1870s to about 1919, with a bit of the 1990s thrown in. Most of those were bloody decades, full of wars. He focused on movements of people trying to live more freely, the interests surrounding them, the powers against them, and the ways these movements were put down.
For years I’ve had some knowledge of doings in Europe in World War II. More recently I got interested in some World War I writings, and I began to see how World War II was sitting there, just waiting to happen, becoming inevitable because of behaviors and choices being enacted by all parties involved during and after World War I.
Everything my French friend told me made it clear how what happened before led right up to World War I.
And this is why History is so important to know, to look at, to bring into our conversation: We must see these patterns, see that what we are doing now will lead to our misery, or to our health.
Take, for instance, the recent financial meltdown: This is nothing new for industrial capitalism; and the 1930s was not the only other, and certainly not the first time. It should not have come as such a shock, and in some ways we could say it should not have happened at all.
Howard Zinn’s work has contributed to a different way of teaching history, and expecting history to be taught, by historians, teachers, students, and artists as well. It is history as affects us all, not just the so-called big players strutting across a stage. It is history of people’s experiences at the hands of the so-called big players, and history of people’s movements, people’s desires for fair and free societies. It is the common ground of these, our stories that might one day help us to remember the fire the last time, to choose another path, and not get burned again.
Howard Zinn’s work has already become part of our changing vision, and will reverberate onward, from us and our children. Work well done.
“Don’t look for a moment of total trumph. See
it as an ongoing struggle, with victories and
defeats, but in the long run the consciousness of
people growing. So you need patience, persistence,
and need to understand that even when you don’t
“win,” there is fun and fulfillment
in the fact that you have been involved,
with other good people,
in something worthwhile.”
~ Howard Zinn