Central PA's LGBT News Source


Don’t know much about history


By Trum Simmons

Rock 'n' roll fans (well, those of a certain age) will recognize the Sam Cooke song in the headline. What a Wonderful World begins with all the things he doesn’t know, followed by “but I do know that I love you… .” Oh, that wonderful smooth voice!

The number of the American people who don’t know history is beyond counting, and every year surveys remind us of this fact.

In 1980 historian and activist Howard Zinn (1922-2010) published A People’s History of the United States, and if you haven’t read it, I hope you’ll purchase a copy after learning about it here.

The latest edition includes an introductory essay by Matt Damon, who writes that he found it “life-changing,” even making sure he mentioned the book in his first movie, “Good Will Hunting,” when his character says that it “will knock you on your ass.”

What differentiates this history book from so many others? Listen to Zinn say why he wrote it: “I wanted to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality and national arrogance.” He wrote from a specific point of view, believing “there is no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation.”

By 2017 many of us know that Christopher Columbus was not just a navigator and discoverer but also a man responsible for genocide, thanks in part to the attention paid to that side of the story during the Quincentennary celebrations in 1992-93.

But did you know about all the people who came to the New World via Virginia in the early 1600s and who subsequently became indentured servants? In 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses provided for the recording and enforcing of contracts between servants and masters.

No, we are not talking about African slaves. These were European folks who came to America in ships enduring conditions somewhat similar to those of the slave ships. For example, in 1741 a ship arrived with only 60 of its 106 original passengers. The rest had died during the 16-week voyage from Belfast, Ireland.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the servants rose up against their harsh treatment by their masters during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. In response, Governor Berkeley wrote, “How miserable that man is that Governs a People where six parts of seven at least are Poore, Endebted Discontented and Armed.”

You probably also know the label “robber barons” as applied to men like J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. In Zinn’s book we get the details, and they don’t speak well of these “great men.” Yes, they also did some good things, but Zinn gives us a dispiriting picture of their brutal impact on working men and women and the subsequent rise of the union movement (By 1914 “the IWW seemed to be everywhere,” Zinn writes. “Class conflict was intense.”)

In his chapters War is the Health of the State and A People’s War? Zinn will make you rethink much of you know--or think you know--about World Wars I and ll. The reasons our leaders gave for these wars may have had some truth, but what they didn’t tell us was just as important. Were these the people’s wars or were they also something else?

If you watched Ken Burns’ latest documentary, The Vietnam War, earlier this fall, you also need to know that Zinn’s treatment of the war is all in the title of his chapter “The Impossible Victory: Vietnam.”

Back to the title of Sam Cooke’s song. Our nation’s current president continues to show that he doesn’t know much about history--yet another dispiriting and scary fact.

His ignorance about the U.S. Civil War and Andrew Jackson was on full display when he told a newspaper he wondered why issues that triggered the war “could not have been worked out.”

And regarding his citing Andrew Jackson as his role model for populism, just read what Zinn has to say about that: “Jackson the slave holder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.”

In an afterword to this latest edition, Zinn apologized for his slight treatment of LGBTQ history and explains that he had not been well versed in this area. While some might deride him for this, I take his statement as coming from a man who had no problem admitting his shortcomings. And I say good for him.