History with a preferential option for the poor

I probably should’ve read this years ago, maybe as an angry 19-year-old (though, come to think of it, I wasn’t really that angry when I was 19), but I recently started Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. So far I’m pretty impressed: I was expecting a political harangue, but what Zinn’s doing is subtler than that. He’s trying to tell the story of America from the perspective of those who were often on the losing end of things: the Indians, African slaves, white indentured servants, the working poor, etc. Zinn freely admits that his history is selective, but as he points out, all history is selective, whether it’s told from the point of view of the elite or the masses. In the standard narrative of American history, the costs inflicted on the marginalized and dispossessed are, at best, treated as anomalies or simply part of the price we pay for the long, glorious march of progress. The way the traditional story is told tends to mask deep conflicts of interests, virtually identifying the history of the nation with the “winners” (i.e., the political and economic elite). Zinn argues that it’s worth looking more closely at the other side of the story and considering whether what we assume to be “progress” really is. Given how much influence traditional assumptions about American history continue to wield in contemporary politics, Zinn’s work strikes me as a still-needed corrective.

(I realize this will all sound painfully obvious to many.)

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