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The People Speak

A Performance Piece

The People Speak by Howard Zinn
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To celebrate the millionth copy sold of Howard Zinn's great People's History of the United States, Zinn drew on the words of Americans -- some famous, some little known -- across the range of American history. These words were read by a remarkable cast at an event held at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City that included James Earl Jones, Alice Walker, Jeff Zinn, Kurt Vonnegut, Alfre Woodard, Marisa Tomei, Danny Glover, Myla Pitt, Harris Yulin, and Andre Gregory.

From that celebration, this book was born. Collected here under one cover is a brief history of America told through dramatic readings applauding the enduring spirit of dissent.

Here in their own words, and interwoven with commentary by Zinn, are Columbus on the Arawaks; Plough Jogger, a farmer and participant in Shays' Rebellion; Harriet Hanson, a Lowell mill worker; Frederick Douglass; Mark Twain; Mother Jones; Emma Goldman; Helen Keller; Eugene V. Debs; Langston Hughes; Genova Johnson Dollinger on a sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, Michigan; an interrogation from a 1953 HUAC hearing; Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and member of the Freedom Democratic Party; Malcolm X; and James Lawrence Harrington, a Gulf War resister, among others.

HarperCollins; October 2009
96 pages; ISBN 9780061847325
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The People Speak
Author: Howard Zinn

Chapter One

Introductory Excerpt from
A People's History of the United States


My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can "see" history from the standpoint of others.

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those wars, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim. In the short run, the victims, themselves desperate and tainted with the culture that oppresses them, turn on other victims.

Stiff, understanding the complexities, I will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest. I will try not to overlook the cruelties that victims inflict on one another as they are jammed together in the boxcars of the system. I don't want to romanticize them. But I do remember (in rough paraphrase) a statement I once read: "The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don't listen to it, you will never know what justice is."

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