Of Howard Zinn and Other Heroes

by William Loren Katz on February 9, 2010

In less than a year the battle for truth has lost three of its most innovative and stalwart voices, historians John Hope Franklin, Ivan Van Sertima and now Howard Zinn. Each challenged aspects of the cheerfully bigoted narrative that has passed for history in schools, colleges, texts and the media. Each created works that made history by awakening millions of fellow citizens to a new host of heroic men and women whose daring contributions had been shamefully ignored.

As they gathered their documentation, Franklin, Van Sertima and Zinn confronted a lily-white, scholarly elite comfortable with racism, economic injustice, and imperialism—with some willing to declare these evils necessary forms of progress. Indeed, the books of these innovative scholars amounted to a vast underground railroad of subversive knowledge. Ivan Van Sertima wrote during a time when Arnold Toynbee led the world’s leading scholars in claiming Africans made no contribution to civilization, science or art, none, zero, zip. Van Sertima cited sources beginning with Columbus to prove an African presence in America before 1492—exploding a pivotal self-serving Caucasian myth. Then he went on to detail African contributions to global science, Europe and Asia. The media tried to bury him, but his They Came Before Columbus, became a best-seller, still in print after three decades.

John Hope Franklin wrote in an era when Henry Steele Commager and Samuel Eliot Morison, Pulitzer Prize historians, used their widely used college text, The Growth of the American Republic, to describe slavery in this hideous way. “As for Sambo. . .he suffered less than any other class in the South from its ‘peculiar institution.'” Franklin faced a citizenry schooled on notions that people of African descent really benefited from slavery and had no history worth recounting. His response was to painstakingly detail how African Americans contributed mightily to each stage of America’s economic and democratic growth. His From Slavery to Freedom has been the leading text in the field since it came out more than six decades ago, and he has been showered with honors.

Howard Zinn broadened the battle when he claimed conventional U.S. texts and school courses failed by celebrating wars, legislation, Presidents, generals and captains of industry. He stood history back on its feet in his People’s History of the United States in 1980 which told how masses of American women and men, people of color and poor whites built the country first as slaves and indentured servants, and then as mill hands, assembly line workers and maids. He further antagonized traditional scholars by rejoicing in the disobedience of slave rebels, union organizers and radical civil rights and anti-war agitators. He found dissidents to be America’s real patriots and democrats—not the George Washingtons, Thomas Jeffersons and Andrew Jacksons who talked of liberty while they fought Indians, traded in slaves, and sent posses after those who escaped. His text has sold two million copies. . .so far.

Proceeding from different angles, Franklin, Van Sertima and Zinn established that much written history is a false tale, a patriotic pabulum, designed to white wash past crimes, burnish traditional heroes and promote conformity. Each of the three scholar joined demonstrations for causes dear to their historical understanding.

The documents unearthed by Franklin, Van Sertima and Zinn illuminated the world, moved mountains and lifted people who had been told their ancestors never amounted to much. Though these truth-tellers will be sorely missed, their deep love of humanity and extraordinary works will live as long as people seek to examine the past as a way to chart the future.

I found the three men to be delightful, supportive friends; their personal interest stimulated my thinking and benefited my work. I was blessed to ride on their shoulders, and lucky enough to tell each of my love for them, their good humor and crusading works.

  • Normandie Kent

    William Katz replaces a pivotal “self-serving Caucasian myth” with a self-serving Afrocentric myth at the expense of the Native Americans . If Africans really came to America before Columbus, the Natives would have survived all the European-African viruses and bacterial infections, with all the anti-bodies built up over time. Also, there is zero evidence that stand up to scrutiny, that shows Africans came before Columbus. Africans have there own accomplishments and they are found in Africa. There is no Genetic evidence that says Africans made to the Americas Mr. Katz.

  • Craig

    I’ve been reading all your posts on your website for the past 2 days and have come to the conclusion that u are a really good dude William Loren Katz. I am studying true Black History on my own accord because I got some wake up calls an my thirst for knowledge and wanting to help my people grew. I came across your name yesterday from a youtube interview with Cultural Caravan with Louise Dente.

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