She had addressed it to me, Ray Mungo and Richard Schweid – all of us writers who had been part of our old Boston University posse. Verandah said, “Wish we were together to sit shiva and praise him. Howard set the standard for forceful engagement without ego dreck. While he set and carried this standard for so long, it is now our turn to step up. Glad he made his mark on us. Love, V”
Howard Zinn (1922-2010) began to teach at Boston University (BU) in 1964, having been kicked out of the traditionally Black women’s school Spelman College in 1963 – despite being tenured – for supporting the students’ complaints of gender discrimination by the College. I arrived at BU as an undergraduate the next year and so did the international wave of rebellion. Activism wasn’t new to Zinn, who had been involved in the civil rights movement since the 1950s.
Until I left Boston in 1972, I shared a lot of barricades with Howard Zinn. On my return to Boston in 2001, I joined the National Writers Union (NWU). Zinn was a long-time member of the Boston Chapter and it was cool to be back intertwined in a struggle together after all those years.
Many local union members have great memories of Zinn.
Barbara Beckwith – author of What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism and Boston NWU Co-Chair – notes how Zinn’s experience as an Air Force bomber in WWII, including dropping the first napalm bombs, shaped his attitudes:
“When I think about why Zinn’s important to me, I think a lot about how he describes his own experience, his own war complicity, his own gradual understanding of ‘what's going on’- which is what I do when I speak about racism and white privilege.
“In Zinn’s The People's History of the United States, he not only shows that the story of what most of us were doing over our country's history is worthy of documentation, but he also shows people seeking justice, building democracy, resisting warmongering. He was both fierce and funny - and people listened and were moved to action.”
Howard Zinn is the author of many books, but his multi-million best seller The People's History of the United States has spawned versions ranging from a comic book to a young peoples’ version to the star-studded film version of the original documents shown some months ago on the History channel. I was present for one of the main tapings of readings for that film and wrote about the project for Alternet.org in a piece called “Dramatic Voices of Dissent: Celebrities Film Zinn’s ‘The People Speak.’”
I interviewed a number of people involved in the film – from Stacyann Chin to Josh Brolin. I didn’t get a chance to speak to Bob Dylan and Bruce Spingsteen, but they too got on board. When I spoke with Zinn, I asked how it was to work with such big names and he told me:
“Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Kerry Washington and Viggo Mortensen all flew the redeye just to spend a day or two with us... The affection, the teamwork and the camaraderie – it becomes less a cast than a social movement, like people on a picket line together. That’s the spirit we felt backstage and throughout the process.”
Charles Coe – author of Picnic on the Moon and NWU Co-Chair – told me he “recently reread a great little book by Howard Zinn called Artists in Times of War, a collection of four essays. Howard’s view was that ‘political power is controlled by the corporate elite, and the arts are the locale for a kind of guerilla warfare in the sense that guerillas look for apertures and opportunities where they can have an effect.’ Given the recent Supreme Court ruling that gives corporations carte blanche to pour unlimited cash into political propaganda, now more than ever, writers have to carry on Howard’s commitment to speak truth to power.”
In 2005, NWU member Howard Zinn was the keynote speaker at Boston’s annual Book Party, celebrating those authors who had books published that year. He spoke about the censorship writers were facing in the Bush war environment and urged writers to submit op-eds. The Book Party is a potluck and our table was heaving with nibbles, treats and drinks. But Zinn needed coffee and of this there was none. Jeanne Harnois, a journalist and NWU officer, offered to run out and get him some. She reveals in her blog:
“Well, a couple of weeks later, I received a letter from none other than Howard Zinn. It was handwritten on white, lined paper in a plain, white envelope. In the letter, he graciously thanked me for the coffee and offered to buy me one in return. We met soon after at a coffee shop in Harvard Square. It was one of the high points of my writing life…”
Howard Zinn never rested, never put aside his commitment to expose the mess of reality and then to try to clean it up. If you want a wide-ranging, long look at Zinn, check out this film of a May 2009 interview with sportscaster Dave Zirin. It is Howard Zinn at his most adorable, relaxed and pointed.