Black and white

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

A posthumous compilation of Howard Zinn's writings that challenge the ingrained opinions on racial matters.

HOWARD ZINN, an important dissident voice in America for half a century and one of the most prominent anti-racist essayists, educators and activists, has challenged racial inequities as a community organiser, public speaker, and writer. Having begun his career as the Chairperson of the History Department in Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia, he came to the early understanding of upheavals in history seen in revolutionary movements which had behind them as impetus not leaders but people who forced upon the state the imperative of justice and responsibility. It being the oldest college for black girls, Zinn's early views of the problem are framed within a location deeply volatile in its racial discriminatory culture. Incidentally, the writer and activist Alice Walker was his student here and spoke highly of Zinn's classroom lectures, which always remained relevant to the outside world and the demands of freedom and equality by Southern blacks soaked in a bloody history. Zinn writes: I did not see how I could teach about liberty and democracy in the classroom and remain silent about their absence outside the classroom. He was pained to see around him no justice and no reason except the air filled with blood and bullets exploding around the heads of sleeping children.

Harking back to the Russian civil war, Zinn remembers Tolstoy's words: To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. His passionate stand against racial discrimination brought him close to Martin Luther King and spurred him to initiate the Student Movement Coordinating Committee (SMCC). He was dismissed from the college after seven years for insubordination', a dismissal that became the impelling force behind his unshakable pursuit of fundamental humanitarian principles and firm commitment to equality. Alice Walker, who also left the college later, expressed her admiration for Zinn: What can I say that will in any way convey the love, respect, and admiration I feel for this unassuming hero who was my teacher and mentor.

Professor Cornel West writes in the introduction to the book under review thus: Zinn looked at history and society through the lens of those Frantz Fanon called the wretched of the earth poor and working people, women, gays, lesbians, indigenous people, Latinos, Asians, Jews, Arabs, and especially black people. An activist throughout, he moved smoothly from the library to the street, from the office to the jail, from the lecture room to the political rally.

Standing up against institutional and structural racism that pervades American society, Zinn, in his famous book A People's History of the United States, had drawn attention to history from below, a history where no one is a bystander but a participant: History looked at under the surface, in the streets and on the farms, in GI barracks and trailer camps, in factories and offices, tells a different story. Whenever injustices have been remedied, wars halted, women and blacks and native Americans given their due, it has been because unimportant' people spoke up, protested and brought democracy alive. The subaltern, thus, can speak, and speak to powers so as to make a difference. Therefore, to the question Does history have meaning?, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur's ambiguous answer would be quite valid: Yes, insofar as we are able to approach universality and systems; no, insofar as this universality does violence to the life of individuals whose singularity always remains invincible.

In this singularity lie the voices of struggle of the marginalised in America which is mostly absent from history books. It is this absence that is given place in Zinn's recent book, a compilation of his shorter writings and lectures, in which he gives his readers the experience of the key moments in history when some of the bravest and most effective political acts were the sounds of the human voice itself. The collection draws our attention to the major movements from the periphery that are not just imbued with words but raise vital issues concerning racism and class conflict. At the heart of his writings is his ideology of democratic socialism, which he describes as socialism that uses resources for human needs of production based on need rather than on profit, a roughly equal distribution of the country's wealth; there should be no person without adequate health care, housing, employment. And there should be no control of thought or speech.

History of slavery

Examining the history of slavery, it becomes clear that the Declaration of Independence made on July 4, 1776, upholding the notions of equality, life, liberty and happiness, has been more or less a rhetoric that obliterates the right of the people to alter or abolish anti-racist, draconian practices. In spite of the constant dread of the lash, slaves could not be prevented from composing their own religious songs of resistance implying their disagreement with the sermon: If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master.

Fugitive slave author Harriet Jacobs has written on the relationship between the church and slavery and how religion was used as a tool to prevent slave rebellion. Zinn uses an advertisement which appeared in a Runaway Slave Newspaper' in 1835 to show how a reward of $100 for Harriet Jacobs' apprehension was one of the many such announcements intended for the perpetuation of slavery and blatantly opposed to the idea of freedom that the American leadership was so proud of.

Zinn takes up in this hard-hitting work the bitterness of the contemporary debate over racially charged issues and racial justice and the general nature and implications of liberalism in a nation which faces the worrying problem of intolerance. He maintains that social justice can be achieved only through fairness and not through the principle of colour blindness. It cannot be denied that people and institutions mete out treatment to individuals according to their colour though he realises that once the superficiality of the physical is penetrated and seen for what it is, the puzzle of race loses itself in whatever puzzle there is to human behaviour in general. Once you begin to look, in human clash, for explanation other than race, they suddenly become visible, and even where they remain out of sight, it is comforting to know that these non-racial explanations exist, as disease began to lose its eeriness with the discovery of bacteria, although the specific problem of identifying each bacterial group remained.

To evolve an unbiased action plan for the rights of the minorities, this paradox of universalism and cultural autonomy must be taken into account so that the politics of recognition and difference forms the basis of a critical frame that can counter any kind of cultural imperialism that fails to recognise both marginalised groups and particular identities. One way out of this impasse can nudge us towards a more accommodating liberalism which cuts down a little on the universalism aspect and gives concessions for the recognition of cultural groups.

Universal human rights

The concept of universal human rights has been criticised by some who argue that these rights reflect the anti-communitarian, self-centred individualism of the West with a disproportionate focus on individual autonomy. It can instead be posited that communities can exist in modern Western societies which protect not only the civil and political rights but the whole spectrum of individual human rights, including economic rights.

To my question whether he could elaborate on his becoming class-conscious at an early stage in life, Zinn had replied, I grew up in a working class family, saw how hard my father worked, how hard my mother worked, without becoming prosperous. On the other hand, I saw in newspapers and magazines the photos of the rich, and I could not tell whether they did any work or not, and when I found out what kind of work some of them did it seemed to me dangerous for society. When I went to work in the shipyard, long hours, hard work, at little pay I realised that most of the people on the planet work hard, with very little compensation.

The essays in this collection are interesting although, in many ways, unsettling as they challenge the ingrained opinions on race matters. The influence of race on life in America cannot be denied. Provocatively and engagingly put, Zinn's arguments and first-hand experience compel Americans to take serious cognisance of the Declaration of Independence as well as the long tragic history of blood and bullets inflicted on their fellow citizens without any provocation.

The pervasiveness of racism even when a black occupies the White House has a subconscious effect on Americans that can only be altered by forcing the issue into the open. Zinn emphasises that white Americans themselves must be at the vanguard of the policy shifts essential to remedy the nation's racial discrimination in crime, health, wealth, education and more.

Zinn would like individuals to be treated fairly, and to achieve this, it would be important to enact colour-conscious policies. In a post-racial society, race-bound problems require race-conscious remedies. The compilation of his writings, though posthumous, indeed makes a heartfelt plea for true equality, driving out the myth of racial transcendence in post-Obama America, with emphasis on the ongoing need for civil rights action in this century. Zinn sends out a clear admonishment of his country's rulers: Men who have no respect for human life or for freedom or justice have taken over this beautiful country of ours. It will be up to the American people to take it back.

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