Many are probably aware by now that Howard Zinn passed away on Wednesday. The countless tributes from both mainstream and alternative news outlets are all a testament to what a massive impact he has had on our present culture. It would be impossible to quantify exactly how many people were moved by his writing and convinced that they too have a role to play in shaping our society from the bottom up.
Like many of my generation, I was first exposed to Professor Zinn's work through A People's History of the United States. I was lucky enough to have the book required for my history class in high school. Though the teacher also incorporated more traditional works in an effort to be more "balanced," Zinn's profound and painstaking narrative of America's untold history opened my eyes more than any other history book before or since. It wasn't long before I was corresponding with him via email, and it was him who initially encouraged me to get involved in the radical left.
These were the reasons that some have referred to Howard Zinn as "the historian who made history." To him, it wasn't just about learning facts and spouting them back in tests and term papers. It was about knowing the story of your side so as better to change its future.
The affect of Zinn's work on me didn't end with A People's History, either. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I happened to pick up Artists in Times of War. By this point I was a committed revolutionary, and though I had continued to love and examine art, I had seldom thought of how the two dovetailed. Zinn's passionate insistence that artists have a role to play got me thinking. It wasn't just that art and society happened to cross over at times, it was that there was always a relationship between the two:
"The artist thinks, acts, performs music, and writes outside the framework that society has created. The artist may do no more than give us beauty, laughter, passion, surprise and drama. I don't mean to minimize these activities by saying the artist can do no more than this. The artist needn't apologize, because by doing this, the artist is telling us what the world should be like, even if it isn't that way now. The artist is taking us away from the moments of horror that we experience everyday--some days more than others--and showing us what is possible.
"But the artist can and should do more. In addition to creating works of art, the artist is also a citizen and a human being."
These words shook me. They set me off on an exploration of the intersection between artists and the world around them. It's an exploration that I find unable to drop. I'm certainly not alone here. Zinn introduced unknown numbers of young people not just to a different interpretation of history, but a different way of thinking. It's a way of thinking that isn't just more accurate, but is ultimately more hopeful and inspiring than anything we could learn from "business as usual." And for that, we can be infinitely grateful.