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Today would have been Howard Zinn’s 90th birthday, had he still been alive. The world has lost one of its great moral compass and a great voice for human rights and anti-imperialism with his death.

From Common Dreams:

The late historian, writer and activist Howard Zinn would have turned 90 years old today. Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87 on January 27, 2010. After serving as a bombardier in World War II, Zinn went on to become a lifelong dissident and peace activist. He was active in the civil rights movement and many of the struggles for social justice over the past 50 years. In 1980, Howard Zinn published his classic book, "A People’s History of the United States," which would go on to sell more than a million copies and change the way we look at history in America.

I wish to dedicate this diary to him, because I owe it to him. I am indebted to him…because frankly…he changed my life. Let me tell you how.

When I was a child in elementary child…maybe in the third grade, I lived a pretty innocent life. I was naïve and believed everything my teachers and for that matter adults told me. Before the beginning of Columbus Day, my teacher read to us from some picture book about Columbus’s expedition to the New World (which I later came to realize wasn’t new to millions of people).

We memorized Columbus’s three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

We memorized the day via a cute little couplet (or some form of it):

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
But the most fun I had in the days leading up to this Columbus Day, was in making Christopher Columbus and Native American puppets out of brown paper bags.

After our class finished making these puppets we would reenact the entire expedition as a group.

In our scene, Columbus would set foot in the Americas and call it India. He would then be instantly greeted by a team of Native Americans bearing gifts and both the Europeans and the Native Americans would become friends forever sharing the land in peace and joy.

Our teacher would gently smile as we laughed and played, not at all concerned with whether or not this was historically accurate. Perhaps because she wanted to maintain our innocence while we were still young.

When I went home I would recount my day in school to my parents and I still remember that when I would tell my father about our scene between Columbus and the Indians, my father would shake his head and say: “That’s not right,” and my mother would gently tap him on the shoulder and say: “Leave it be.” (My parents were immigrants to this land, so this is an English translation of their mother tongue).

My father would sigh and say, “When you get older I want to give you a book.”

Columbus Day, would come to pass and Thanksgiving would roll around. Before the holidays, my teacher would read to us from a picture book about Squanto and the Pilgrims, and how the Native Americans helped the Pilgrims survive after a harsh winter.

Again we would make puppets and again we would reenact the scene between the Europeans and the Native Americans, a scene ending with both sides living in harmony and peace.

When I again came home and recounted this scene to my father, he held a book in his hand and said: This is the book I want to give you, someday.

I memorized the cover and could make out the words. The book was called, A People's History of the United States

By the time I had gotten to Middle-School, I knew about the extermination of the Native Americans to some extent, but I was not prepared for the details, which horrified me when…on an auspicious day my father gave me that book to read.

Suddenly Columbus turned from a curious explorer to a genocidal maniac, driven not by curiosity but for the lust of gold.

From the People’s History of the United States (I cannot recall if this is exactly what I have read, since the book has been revised several times):

And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their
necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.  

The Indians had been given an  impossible task. The only gold around was bits of dust
garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.  

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.  

When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island.

This is the Columbus that we celebrate. We celebrate our killers but never their victims, for the cries of the victims are fleeting and have long been silenced. Their blood soaked memory is eclipsed and muffled by the heroic exploits and myth-making of those who were triumphant.

Many people would repeat that the winners tell history. But Zinn changed that for me. No longer did winners tell history. No longer were the victims to be silenced or the truth tainted by glorification of the conquerors.

And this was not limited to the Native Americans. Zinn gave a voice to millions of oppressed peoples, whose lives, language, culture and livelihood were destroyed by war, slavery, exploitation, colonization, industrialization, racism, bigotry and the suppression of labor movements that has marked our history and in many ways still continues to mark our history.

He let me see what my teachers would not let me see. He gave me a mission in life i.e., to do my best in correcting the wrongs of society. Most importantly, he taught me something that prophets, sages and saints could not…he taught me to be a better person.

Rest in Peace, Howard Zinn. I hope your legacy lives on and continues to inspire people of conscience.

Originally posted to Shawn on Fri Aug 24, 2012 at 04:34 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter.

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