For this Tuesday’s class, I examined the historiographical approach known as either “history from below” or “people’s history.” Initially, I did not know that people’s history was its own historiographical approach because I always thought this style of historiography fell under a socialist/Marxist lens. I most likely thought this because a people’s history approach seems, to me, to fall neatly under the bourgeoisie vs. proletariat narrative embedded in Marxist histories – just with a heavy emphasis on the role of the proletariat. Conversely, “history from above” or “great man’s history” – another historiographical approach I found – would fall under that same Marxist lens but with a heavy focus on the bourgeoisie.
Anyhow, when I realized that “history from below” was considered its own historiographical approach, I wanted to write about a quintessential example of history from below – A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. I’ve been reading Zinn’s book in small chunks for a bit now, and I’ve found it to be a very refreshing approach to U.S. history for two distinct reasons. The first reason is Zinn’s historiographical approach. I remember that even though world history and US history in high school focused so much on the accomplishments of great men – which were and are important to be sure – my favorite parts of the class were always the little snippets of insight we would gain into everyday people’s lives. Major events effect everyone in their own unique way, and I immensely enjoy trying to piece together those individual narratives into a compelling and relevant analysis/story of the past. Thus, to have an entire book dedicated to this approach and present an alternative view of what I learned in high school is very refreshing, enjoyable, and rewarding.
In addition, I found Zinn’s approach to US history to be very refreshing because he is so candid about what his approach to history and the biases it introduces. I think this sentence in the introduction to Zinn’s book perfectly sums up this type of candidness:
The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex
Zinn then continues to talk about how his historiographical approach focuses on the conquered, slaves, workers, and dominated for another page and a half and concludes “That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.”
I find this openness about one’s approach/biases to be so powerful because it equips the reader with the knowledge and ability to be deeply critical about the strengths and flaws of the text.
Finally, to give one example of how this historiographical approach affects how Zinn writes about history, I would like to talk about something timely and relevant to this week. Zinn’s opening chapter discusses the rich Native culture that existed in the United States until Christopher Columbus arrived in the “New World.” In standard histories taught in US middle and high schools, the story of Christopher Columbus is one of noble discovery for God, gold, and glory. In Zinn’s text, however, the story of systemic pillaging, raping, and murdering of indigenous peoples and their land is told through the eyes of those natives, and through the personal diaries of the conquerors who were fully aware of what they were doing. Ultimately, I believe it is important that we tell all of these stories and contextualize them in the light of their counterparts because that enables us to have a more productive dialogue about issues we’re facing today such as celebrating Columbus Day vs Indigenous People’s Day.