.. uccessors were not coming into an empty wilderness, but into a world which in some places was as densely populated as Europe itself, where the culture was complex, where human relations were more egalitarian than in Europe, and where the relations among men, women, children, and nature were more beautifully worked out than perhaps any place in the world. They were a people without a written language, but with their own laws, their poetry, their history kept in memory and passed on, in an oral vocabulary more complex than Europes, accompanied by song, dance, and ceremonial drama. They paid careful attention to the development of personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion and potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature (21-22). In the middle of the first chapter, Zinn uses the historical treatment of Columbus to explain his own view on teaching history.
Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of Indian settlements in America. That beginning, when you read [Bartolom de] Las Casas.. is conquest, slavery, death. When we read history books given to the children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure — there is no bloodshed — and Columbus Day is a celebration (7). He goes on to vituperate historian Samuel Eliot Morison for his brief and buried mention of Columbuss genocide of the natives.
This is one of the most heinous crimes a historian can commit, Zinn says, because Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader: yes, mass murder took place, but its not that important.. it should effect very little what we do in the world (8). Zinn says that selection, simplification, [and] emphasis (8) are necessary to the historian, but he chooses to take a different stance in his writings. ..I prefer to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish..
of the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by the blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can see history from the standpoint of others (10). Zinn continues his identification with the oppressed as he discusses black-white relations. He says that blacks and whites are not naturally prejudiced against each other as some would have us believe; he points to the fact that laws actually had to be passed to keep blacks and whites from fraternizing. Servants and slaves of different races saw each other as oppressed workers first and as members of a specific race second.
On the topic of slavery, Zinn berates the American system, calling it lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties, without hope of any future (27). Some argue that African tribes had slavery of their own so it was a part of their culture to begin with, but Zinn says that the slaves of Africa were more like the serfs of Europe — in other words, like most of the population of Europe (27). Zinn commiserates with the plight of the oppressed frontier whites, making Nathaniel Bacon out to be a hero. Over the course of the next 80 years, Zinn cites routine injustices against the working and under classes, saying that it seems quite clear that the class lines hardened through the colonial period; the distinction between rich and poor became sharper (47). It is refreshing and commendable to see a history text that takes a stance on the side of the peoples that seldom get represented.
Columbuss treatment of the Native Americans was atrocious, abominable, and abhorrent, yet most history texts treat him as one the greatest men to have ever lived. If your value as a human being is measured by the number of lives you ruin, people you kill, and civilizations you destroy, then Columbus is on par with Josef Stalin. This example may seem extreme, but both men were directly responsible for the deaths of millions on innocent civilians and caused sheer terror and panic among millions of other people. The difference is that Columbus did it in the name of exploration and human progress, which Zinn correctly calls a bit of a misnomer, while Stalin did it to achieve his political ambitions, which Columbus was certainly not without himself. Columbus committed horrible atrocities, and Zinn accurately portrays them from a unique standpoint, which gives long overdue respect and recognition to the millions of Indians who died in the name of progress. Equally accurate is Zinns portrayal of colonial relations. Both African slaves and proletarian whites were pushed around, tormented, and used as pawns in the political game of chess for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.
Zinn asserts that there were clear contentions between the races that ultimately led to the revolution when the anger of the masses that was originally directed primarily at the bourgeoisie was redirected against England in the form of rhetoric, concessions, and propaganda calling for loyalty to Americas upper classes and rebellion, first quiet and then loud, against England. [The bind of loyalty] was the language of liberty and equality, which could unite just enough whites to fight a Revolution against England, without ending either slavery or inequality (58). Zinn is absolutely correct in seeing the ulterior motives of our founding fathers; they realized that splitting from England would be good for them financially, socially, and politically. What they did was harness the peoples anger against them and used it, quite ironically, for their own advancement. Ultimately, for the first 250 years of Americas history, there was oppression and class warfare on varying scales that are traditionally ignored or unemphasized by traditional history texts, but Zinn masterfully shows the reader are major and influencial parts of American history.
To ignore the plight of the conquored and oppressed is to ignore a part of history that cannot be ignored.