History, it's said, is written by the winners, and our text books and encyclopedias bear this out with their accounts of wars won and political triumphs. Take a second look at most histories and you'll notice not only are they written by the winners, the story they tell is one seen through the eyes of a select group of people. You'll read about captains of industry, generals, presidents, kings, prime ministers, and the occasional war hero or two, and be regaled with tales of their acumen, or on occasion, spectacular failures. However what you'll very rarely find is the story of the private in the field who carried out the general's orders, a factory worker or coal miner describing what it was like to work twelve hour shifts with little pay for one of the captains of industry, or those who suffered from the politicians' decisions.
If one pays careful attention you can see history being written around you on a daily basis. It's in the headlines on CNN or the official statements from government offices around the world which are reprinted as fact. Today's announcement of a successful surgical strike in Afghanistan will be in tomorrow's history text book as part of the overall campaign against oppression and terror that was carried out in the early part of the 21st century. You'll probably look in vain for any mention of facts or opinions that disagree with that opinion. It's doubtful that history books will talk about the thousands of Iraqi civilians who died during the "liberation" of their country, how the country descended into lawlessness and violence during the occupation, or how conditions for the average person in both Iraq and Afghanistan actually worsened under the new regimes installed by the "liberators".
However, that doesn't meant there aren't any accounts or records of that information. It's just that somehow or other they're not made readily available for us, the public at large, to read. In fact throughout the history of this continent, more specifically the United States, there exist examples of speeches and first person accounts of events that give lie to the officially held position espoused by history books. Voices Of A People's History Of The United States by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, published by Seven Stories Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada, gathers together writings, speeches, poems, and song lyrics dating back to the times of Columbus telling the history or the United States, but its a history you might not recognize.
As the majority of the voices in this book are those of ones that were raised in protest against the actions of the government of the time, there will be those who will accuse it of presenting history from a liberal or left wing bias. However, what they will fail to mention is that the histories we have been presented with up until now are just as biased in the other direction. Think of this rather as an attempt to balance the scales. We've heard about Rockefeller and Carnagie and how they built their empires and as captains of industry helped to make the country great, well now you'll hear from those who worked in their factories and mines and fought for living wages, safe working conditions, child labour laws, and a forty hour work week. In fact many of the things we take for granted now; the right of women to vote, equal rights, and the abolition of slavery, were once considered dangerous subversions and the people who spoke out against them threats to public safety.
However, how many text books have quoted ex-slave's Sojourner Truth's 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?" where she espouses not only the rights of African Americans but women as well. Rights which none of us think twice about now.
However only twenty-two years after Truth's speech Susan B Anthony was arrested for trying to vote in a presidential election and was told by her judge that she had been found guilty according to the established forms of law. These two women, along with many of the voices recorded in this book, were considered to be dangers to society, criminals, radicals, and threats against the established norm. Yet they, along with the men and women who were shot down by Rockefeller's private militias when they went on strike, or arrested by Alabama police for protesting segregation are responsible for the freedoms most of us enjoy today. But whose names are the prominent in the history books? Not the ones who fought for our rights, the ones who fought tooth and nail against them.
Voices Of A People's History Of The United States is just what it says it is, voices of the people - from those you've heard of, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springstein, and individuals you haven't, like Private John G. Burnett of the American army who served on the infamous "Trail Of Tears". Born and raised in Tennessee, he grew up roaming the woods and mountains of the Smokey Mountain County which was the traditional home of the Cherokee. In 1838 he took part in what he called "the most brutal order in the history of American warfare" - the rounding up of every single Cherokee in the region, and their forced march through the mountains without proper clothes, shelter or food. "Murder is murder" he says, "and somebody must answer. Somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country in the summer of 1838 ... the 4000 silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokee to their exile. I wish I could forget it, but the picture of 645 wagons lumbering over the frozen ground with their Cargo of suffering humanity still lingers in my memory..."
There are speeches by famous people, but not the speeches we've heard recorded. For instance there's a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. explaining why it is essential that he come out in public as being against the Viet-Nam war. Than there are the speeches that were never allowed to be given. Some poor soul made the mistake of inviting Wamsutta James of the Wampanoag nation to speak at the 350th anniversary celebrations of the landing at Plymouth Rock. The organizing committee took one look at his proposed speech and refused to let him speak as his version of events didn't quite jibe with the celebratory mood they were trying to create. Maybe it was his descriptions of putting people in chains or the pilgrims stealing the Indian's winter food supplies, but it certainly didn't sound much like the descriptions of the first Thanksgivings that most of us have been weaned on.
Reading through a history of America taken from the point of view of those who have dissented, those who have stood up bravely in the face of people who would deprive them of their rights, and those who have dared disagree with the status quo and seeing how it was these people, just as much as the politicians, the generals, and the captains of industry who shaped its future, might make you want to rethink what you hear being passed off as history in the making on today's news. What are the voices who disagree with them saying now - is it possible that they are as right in their statements as Susan B. Anthony was in her address to the court which tried her for illegally voting because she was a woman? Perhaps they are and perhaps they aren't, but how are we to know if we're not allowed to hear them?
History is all of our stories come together, whether we are participants or observers. In Voices Of A People's History Of The United States Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove have gathered together some of the voices like ours from history and told the story of the United States from the time of Columbus to those who oppose the empire building mentality that exists in today's America. Each segment is introduced and given its historical context so you know what and why the person is speaking and what about. If you still think it was a benevolent government that ensured black people were given the vote and schools were integrated than you really need to read this book to learn your own history and perhaps see how you too can have a role in it.
(Originally posted January 2010)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.