Since Zinn’s death in 2010, Arnove – an author and editor – has helped keep Voices of a People’s History alive through readings, and now, in an expanded edition with timely additional content.
Truthout recently discussed the book, which serves as a vital, energetic and inspiring companion to Zinn’s breakthrough book, A People’s History of the United States, with Arnove.
Never miss another story
Get the news you want, delivered to your inbox every day.
Mark Karlin: “Voices of a People’s History” is so expansive and revelatory, it is only appropriate to begin by discussing a normally undisclosed aspect of the colonial revolt against Britain. The book has a section devoted to documenting the economic and social inequality that existed among the colonial settlers and the revolutionary army. That, I am sure, comes as quite a surprise to many schooled on the myth of a nation founded as egalitarian, don’t you think?
Anthony Arnove: Howard was attentive to many aspects of US history that tend to be ignored or deliberately downplayed. But he was especially attuned to class conflict. The common metaphor of the United States as a family conceals sharp divisions that have always existed. And, as you point out, it wasn’t just that those conflicts existed between the colonial settlers and the indigenous population, whom they systematically dispossessed and slaughtered, or between the colonial population and the millions of slaves they forcibly brought here to work and die under the most brutal conditions.
There were also different class interests among the colonialists, among those who fought in the revolutionary army. And the founders were acutely aware of the dangers posed by the different interests of the landless majority if they organized. They had to find ways to ensure that those with property and wealth dominated the new nation they were forging.
That’s why, in “Voices,” we include some of the voices such as Plough Jogger, who took part in Shay’s Rebellion, and Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier who enlisted in the Continental Army in 1776 and served in New York and Connecticut during the American Revolution, who express their frustrations at their ill treatment and the desire for a different social order.
Backing up in history, BuzzFlash recently posted a video of Viggo Mortensen reading a letter detailing the brutality that the Conquistadors visited upon Native Americans. Did anything come of Bartolomé de Las Casas’s appeals to the Spanish royalty?
That’s such a powerful reading. The great filmmaker John Sayles actually helped us craft the version we use in live performances. He read in a very early performance in New York and helped us edit the selection that is in the book, taken from his remarkable book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, into something that works so beautifully on stage. Given the scale of destruction wrought by the conquest of the Americas, the sale of reforms Las Casas was able to urge pale in comparison. And we also should remember that, at one point, he urged using African slave labor rather than enslaving the native peoples of the West Indies, a position he later regretted.
Mortensen’s reading, which was shown on “Democracy Now,” was extremely powerful. What effect do you think the live presentations of the speeches and essays has on audiences?
I am extremely moved myself when taking part in live performances of Voices and struck at how enthusiastically and emotionally people respond. On paper, honestly, it seems rather boring: people watching a group of actors and musicians reading or singing “on book” (with a script in hand), without any costumes or staging or any of the other apparatus of the theater. When we organized our first reading in 2003, we half expected it would be a bust or maybe just a one-time event. But it was electric and galvanizing for people to come together and experience these voices speaking from the past so powerfully to our situation today.
The book has 25 chapters, and their titles and content offer an alternative vision of a nation that was founded upon equality for white male property owners and pretty much inequality for everybody else: people of color, women, the poor, non-heterosexuals. Is it fair to say Voices of a People’s History speaks for the majority who were not beneficiaries of US independence?
A “history for the rest of us” is not a bad way of describing it. But it’s more than just whose voices are included in Voices; it’s how that history is told. One of the major faults of Great White Men history (or, if you are a bit more sensitive, Great White Men and a Few Great Others, Since We Are So Great and Inclusive, Whatever “Mistakes” We Made a Long Time Ago and Let’s Move On . . . history) is that it leaves most students and readers utterly alienated from the process. Howard’s emphasis on people’s history, a bottom-up view of how change happens, was that unknown people, groups of people and not just individuals, oppressed people, dispossessed and abused people, make history. And that is a dangerous idea to those in power.
From how frequently the topic is interspersed in the book, the US certainly appears to be a nation that can’t turn down a war. How is this related to the growth of the United States empire?
One of the themes of Voices is that the US empire has a very long history. It doesn’t begin with 1898 and the conquest of the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and beyond. You have to talk about the invasion and occupation of Mexico in the 1840s (something that is important to remember as we consider the war on Mexican immigrants and the militarization of the border today). You have to look at the westward expansion of the colonies and settler-colonialism and the exercise of “Manifest Destiny.”
But what’s truly striking when you look at this history is the consistency of the rhetoric of benevolence, selflessness, “spreading democracy,” opposing tyranny, defending human rights. One of Howard’s main aspirations as a historian was to teach people about the lies used in past wars so they would be far less likely to believe politicians and military officials when they announce yet again our need to send people to kill and be killed in the name of “democracy.”
Needless to say, the struggle for women to reach full equality with men continues today. Voices includes a feisty, wry recollection of a speech that Sojourner Truth gave around 1850 advocating women’s rights. A spirited performance of the remarks can be found on You Tube, read by Kerry Washington. Would you comment on the spot-on wit when she orated:
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much human rights as men ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman? Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.
Kerry Washington brings down the house every time she reads that. Of course, there is controversy around the text. These are not Truth’s words as she wrote them down herself but as another feminist recalled them. And some people don’t place much stock in this text. But I think there’s a truth (for lack of a better word) at its core – and it’s one Kerry captures brilliantly. And that is the clear defiance of an African-American woman against the double-bind of sexism and racism, exposing the illogic of religious justifications for sexism and the absurdity of doctrines of chivalry, as well as ideas about the sanctity of white womanhood.
Why did you title Chapter 20 “Losing Control in the 1970s”?
Well, the starting point is that each chapter in Voices parallels a chapter in Howard’s A People’s History of the United States. We also have a free teaching guide that does the same. The idea is to make it easier for readers and teachers to use the books alongside each other. Then, to be more specific, this is the chapter in which Howard and I deal with how what we think of as the period of upheaval of the 1960s really should be understood as a period of radical change that extended well into the early 1970s.
The women’s liberation movement, LGBT liberation movement, prison struggles, the fight to end the US war against Indochina – all of these struggles disrupted business as usual and were perceived as profoundly threatening to the establishment. They spoke of a “crisis of democracy,” meaning “we have too much democracy.” This is a rich period, one we have much more to learn from than I think we have.
We live in an age of politicians and even some social activists who are scripted based on polling. How do you discern authentic voices, such as the ones in this anthology?
Our criteria are fairly straightforward. Howard and I looked for voices of people who risked something, where something was at stake. We also looked for voices that also speak to the present and help illuminate ongoing struggles. One of the reason people are so turned off of politics – and by contrast, are so moved by the voices in our book and live performances, as well as our documentary version, The People Speak – is they understand how utterly inauthentic and bought-and-paid-for so much political speech is these days. No one could ever say that about Vito Russo, Sylvia Woods or Eugene Debs.
You have sections on the revolt against racial segregation and on the denunciation of the Vietnam war. One can argue that the truth exposed by these movements broke the back of the traditional US narrative of a country with liberty for all and one that establishes peace. It appears to me that the backlash to those revelations – to the dispelling of so-called “American exceptionalism” – is still occurring through the right wing and the Tea Party. Your thoughts?
“American exceptionalism” defines the framework for discussing US history and politics, even among many critics. Liberalism basically accepts the ideology of exceptionalism. It just expresses frustration that “we” have fallen short of our “ideals.” Someone like Samantha Power talks about our sins of omission – where we failed to intervene, ignoring or excusing the countless cases, continuing to the present, where the real issue is sins of commission. These are crimes that we actively commit and which liberals like Powers enable by wrapping US imperialism in the cloak of liberalism. The Tea Party version of exceptionalism is rooted in reaction and nostalgia, and is thoroughly racist. But it actually has less of a hold than the everyday exceptionalism that informs the reporting of NPR and The New York Times or the speeches of President Obama.
Finally, how did you come to pick the new voices for the book? Can you discuss some of them?
It was a challenge to update the book without Howard, but I did have the benefit of some political discussions with Howard after the last edition came out in 2009 and of years working together, thinking about the kinds of voices and types of social movements he would want to highlight. I also have been keeping a folder for the last 10 years where I keep notes and ideas on readings we can try out in live events or speeches and texts that might work for a future edition of the book.
For this edition, I added twelve readings: among them, a voice you featured, Gustavo Madrigal-Piña, speaking about being “undocumented and unafraid,” Chelsea Manning’s powerful speech after her sentencing, and a terrific speech from Kirstin Roberts about the 2012 Chicago teacher’s strike. What I was struck by is how many more voices I could have included.
Our book is by no means exhaustive or authoritative. It’s just meant to be “a resource of hope” – as Raymond Williams, the great Welsh socialist put it.