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The Big Book of the American Conscience

Howard Zinn in 2006 in New York.Dima Gavrysh (AP)

First he was a modest book; then, one of worship among university students; later, a bestseller; and, finally, an influential work like few others in American history. The Other History of the United States, the book written by historian Howard Zinn (New York, 1922- Santa Monica , 2010), keeps all the elements of the triumph of the ignored, the same essence to which this fundamental work on the events of the American people appeals. With ingenuity and a deep critical sense, Zinn was able to turn the official story upside down thanks to the fact that he applied a bottom-up view of the events that marked the nation of George Washington since its foundation and adopted the point of view of the exploited and political and economic losers.

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Howard Zinn: “The US Constitution was created to serve the powerful”

The other history of the United States was published in 1980. It was a hardcover book of just a few thousand copies. HarperCollins publishing house barely bet on it, without any promotion, despite the fact that its author was a professor who was already all the rage among his students at Spelman College and Boston University. In a few weeks it sold out. Students and alumni flocked to him. However, it was not reissued. The publisher hoped that there could be returns and had other internal priorities. Ultimately, Howard Zinn's publisher Hugh Van Dusen convinced HarperCollins to reprint it in a popular and affordable edition. The book began to sell non-stop. It became a publishing phenomenon, but something more important: it was a cultural reference. To date, it has sold almost three million copies and has been translated into 20 languages.

One of those languages ​​is Spanish. Las Otra Voces, a small alternative publisher, published it in 1997, but it was discontinued. Now, Pumpkin Nuggets has brought it back in a hardcover format, adding a foreword by Anthony Arnove, a writer and producer who worked with Zinn on the documentary The People Speak , a look at the United States through issues such as war, social classes, race or women's rights. Arnove also collaborated on an interesting book of interviews with the late historian, who inspired many scholars, writers, and thinkers in North America. “It radically changed the way millions of people understood history,” says Arnove in his prologue.

Musician Wyclef Jean hugs Howard Zinn during the presentation of the documentary 'The People Speak' at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.
Fred Hayes (WireImage)

Zinn, who was marked as a teenager by reading the complete works of Charles Dickens, was the Woody Guthrie of historical studies. In fact, I admired him wholeheartedly. As the battle-hardened musician who crisscrossed the country from coast to coast fighting fascists and capitalist exploiters and singing to the losers of the Great Depression, Zinn, who had recognized himself as an activist ever since he participated in the struggle of civil movements, was a brilliant mind with a strong commitment to reality. “We must not accept the memory of states as our own thing. Nations are not communities and never were. The history of any country hides terrible conflicts of interest between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated for reasons of race and sex”, he wrote in the first chapter of The other history of the United States dedicated to the arrival of Columbus in North America, a text that served to elaborate the plot of a chapter of The Sopranos, where Zinn's book is seen in the foreground. It wasn't his only screen reference: Matt Damon included a scene in Good Will Hunting in which Ben Affleck cites it as “a book that will blow your mind” and Matt Groening makes it visible in an episode of The Simpsons.

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Somehow, Zinn had something of a countercultural character and, for that, he was boycotted by the more conservative university environment. They couldn't with him. His thinking was unwavering and he also connected very well with some of the most independent voices in American music. Bob Dylan, so elusive for any call, did not hesitate to participate in The People Speak to contribute his vision on the cracks of the American dream. So did Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Alisson Moore, Pink, Van Dyke Parks or John Legend. On his death, the same day as JD Salinger's, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder stated that “he was a continual source of inspiration.” And Willie Nelson noted: “I was hoping that once people understood that they had the power to change things, they would change them.”

The other history of the United States is the great book of the American conscience. With agile prose and the use of documents from the time as testimonies between books, manifestos, poems, films, songs or comics, it is a brilliant and moving history of the town from the point of view of the disadvantaged. And it is from the very origin of the nation in the War of Independence. “The white ruling caste found a ruse: the language of freedom and equality to face a revolution against England, and thus gather enough whites to break up more alliances like the Bacon rebellion,” Zinn writes. A rebellion that in 1676 terrified the colonist caste because black slaves and poor white servants united for the first time in the face of injustice, which was recorded in the lauded Declaration of Independence: “Some Americans were clearly excluded from the circle of interests, such as the blacks, Indians and women”.

Demonstration during the 1979 Boston University faculty and staff strike. Historian Howard Zinn, then a professor at the University, he stands at the bottom left and his head slightly bowed.
Spencer Grant (Getty Images)

From start to finish, the book is permeated by a look of solidarity towards all the excluded. “African slavery lacked two of the elements that made American slavery the cruelest form of slavery in history: the frenzy of unlimited profit that is born of capitalist agriculture and the reduction of the slave to a subhuman rank with the use of slavery. racial hatred,” says Zinn. Racial equality is a constant in his vision. Also the rights of women, to whom she dedicates a valuable chapter on the feminist movement: “The control of women in society was ingeniously effective. It was not exercised directly by the state. Instead, the family was used: men to control women, women to control children. Everyone had to worry about exercising violence towards others when things were not going well”.

And, with everything, this journey to the 21st century -Zinn added chapters in the numerous reissues up to 9/11 and the fight against terrorism-, is especially dazzling in rethinking American identity from inequality, looking at workers, unions and all kinds of exploited workers . He was extraordinarily prescient about what he called “the 99%” versus the “1%” many years before the Occupy Wall Street movement popularized those terms. As written by The New York Times Book Review about the book: “Zinn knew how to invert the shadow and light areas of the story.” And he did so until resistance and refusal were conceived in the historical conscience of his country.

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