Alternatives to A People’s History

Back in November/December, when we decided to read A People’s History of the United States, I asked my history professor friend about the book. His response was muted. “It’s a very biased book. Just understand that before you begin.” Okay. So I bought two copies as well as the middle school version for myself and my nephews/niece.

This reddit thread appeared on /r/books a couple days ago. OP suggests this book should be mandatory reading in public education. The responses surprised me. Given what’s been happening in this country since Trump took office, I anticipated a lot of resounding “YAAAASSSS!!!!” responses. Instead, it was a lot of measured replies almost identical to what my history professor friend had told me.

One of the replies was about reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People along side Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Another reply suggested reading the AP US History textbook as well as picking anything from the AP’s suggested textbook list (is the AP US History textbook on the AP’s suggested textbook list?). There was one long reply that basically boiled down to

TL;DR Zinn’s work is straight up propaganda. So is what’s taught in schools. Replacing one lie with the opposite lie solves nothing.

And here’s a response I’ll quote in its entirety:

You haven’t gained a clearer picture of our history, you’ve simply laid touch to the surface of understanding what it means to view our past from a different point of view. You’re not now smarter or more enlightened. You’ve just read about past events from someone’s very deeply biased and subjective point of view.

Obviously there are facts involved in Zinn’s piece, but please, please, please understand that EVERY SINGLE HISTORICAL WRITING EVER is, at its very best, an educated opinion, be it academic or written for general public consumption This isn’t to say that atrocities haven’t happened. This isn’t to say that Columbus was the haloed discoverer he was once purported to be.

I am not an “armchair historian”. I’m an actual historian with 3 undergraduate degrees ranging from history to biology, and graduate degrees in both history and sociology. It is the historian’s duty to gather as much information, evidenced research, artifactual data, and depicted accounts, consume this, digest it, and then synthesize it into a clear theory. But, understand that although these historical writings and findings are for sure founded on based facts and actualities, a massive amount of author bias is involved. It’s put there on purpose.

What you’ve experienced is one person’s learned account of the transpirations of our history. Don’t stop with Zinn alone. Move forward and read more. Trust me when I say that you really don’t have any understanding of history at all, if what you’re basing your understanding on is merely Zinn’s book alone.

Getting internet confirmation that my history professor friend wasn’t being overly cautious when he warned me about Zinn is fine and all, but it doesn’t really make me feel any better about this country. Zinn is biased, sure, but I can’t dismiss him out of hand because Current Events. Because TNC’s Between the World and Me. Because Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Google “great american black writers” and read anything from there. Try to tell me Zinn’s biases make his book not worth reading when there is all this great art that exists in our culture that is the result of historical events that run counter to the predominate narrative we’re taught in school.

1 Comment

  1. Luigus

    Yeah, no shit it’s biased. That’s as good as criticizing Zinn for being human, which of course people do in order to elevate themselves and rationalize their (also biased, duh) worldview. Who’s reading it as gospel? It’s just another way of looking at the grossly bloated concept of American history, and I welcome the view with due respect and skepticism. Which reminds me, I need to get back to reading it!


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