Upon finishing Chapter 1 of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I am amazed at how ignorantly I was taught history of American colonization in my youth and adolescence. From my cheerful and sing-songy kindergarten Thanksgiving play to my fifth grade “explorer assignment” for which I documented an account of all of Jacques Cartier’s explorative accomplishments and presented a proud biography summarizing my findings, colonization was always romanticized in my elementary education. It was not until my eighth grade US History class that I began to recognize the inequity so tightly entwined with the history of colonization, though my experience may be comparable to Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morrison’s half-assed attempt at covering any liabilities in his brief and dismissive mentions of Columbus’s faults. This was the year that I learned from one of my most progressive history teachers, who told us basic information about the massacres and other horrors committed by conquerers, but in retrospect probably only treated this as part of the process, an unfortunate necessity in history’s progression.
If I’m being reasonable, I can’t really blame this teacher personally. After all, as Zinn notes on page 8, historian’s accounts of the past … “cannot be against selection, simplification, [or] emphasis.” In acknowledgement of this, it was really impossible for my early education to not be tarnished by ideologically motivated accounts of history that were written in favor of colonization and mass produced as allowed by the populations of wealth that supported the publication of such ideas.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder how the world might be different, and likely better, if Columbus had never enslaved and killed the Arawak people, if the Spaniards hadn’t overworked Indigenous tribes to the point of near extinction, if the English had never massacred the Pequot people, and if the Massachusetts Bay Colony had never pursued King Philip’s War. If America’s Indigenous tribes had been allowed to further develop and maintain their populations and communities without interference from colonizers, how might the land we live on look different today? Proponents of colonization often assume society would have developed into something much less advanced than it has, but is this really true? After all, Zinn describes the League of the Iriquois as a confederation of tribes that embraced equity in property through communal ownership, assigned equal governmental power to men and women, and enforced justice in a way that encouraged repentance rather than assigning permanent criminal status to certain individuals. In many ways, I’d consider these characteristics of society to be much more socially advanced than the parallels we see today, from extreme disparities between socioeconomic classes to continued lack of adequate female and BIPOC representation in government to the destructive nature of our criminal justice systems.
As I conclude these thoughts, the thing that most resonates with me from this reading is Zinn’s justification for his approach to history. asserting that it is deceitful to illustrate nations as communities with universal interests and that writing history with the goal of maintaining patriotic morale in this sentiment is wrong. He further elaborates that he doesn’t intend to approach the telling of history in order to avenge its victims and denounce their oppressors, as this would ultimately exhaust our moral energy to absorb further knowledge of history. With this in mind, how do we find the answer to telling history in such a way that appropriately recognizes the injustices of our past and subsequently encourages proper social reform without deterring young learners from the pursuit of this academic discipline?