Howard Zinn, my professor and mentor, Dies at Age 87, January 27, 2010

I attended Boston University and majored in Government as an undergraduate. Dr Howard Zinn was my advisor and professor in three courses. While he was a trained historian with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, his university appointment was actually in the Government Department prior to its being renamed the more common Department of Political Science. The New York Times, which had not prepared an obituary, was wrong as usual in identifying him as a member of the history department.

I matriculated in three courses with Dr Zinn:  two were sequences in Political Theory and the other  Civil Liberties and Civil Rights. He generally wore a green suit, blue button-down shirt and rep tie. He always called me “Mr Kirstein” and was quite receptive to student participation in class. One day he brought his iconic work on the Vietnam War, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal and students began hawking the book to the class. I bought a copy. The book’s major moment is when he “wrote” for President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a speech announcing withdrawal and ending the American perpetrated genocide in Vietnam.

I was not a political activist or “radical” in college: that journey begins in graduate school and has not ended. Yet I know now it was his courses that began my intellectual journey from liberal to a more critical ideological perspective. From accepting mere evolution to a more transformational insistence on social change was impacted by his life and teaching. I have used for most of my career his books in my history and politial science courses.  Students who have taken me know Zinn. They have read his books and understood his revisionist approach on issues of war, race, class, and gender.

His People’s History of the United States that was subdivided into a twentieth-century version was a breakthrough work in its comprehensive revisionism of  the standard history text and emphasis upon the history of the underclass, downtrodden, radical dissenter, the homeless, the immigrant, the woman, the African-American, the socialist and the labor-union organizer. The book sold millions of copies and was even carried in such mainstream outlets as Borders and Barnes and Noble. It achieved middle-class respectability despite its progressive advocacy of social justice and socialist challenge of unbridled capitalism.

Vignettes:

In 2006 I was giving a paper at the Historians Against the War conference at the University of Texas in Austin. Dr Zinn was the keynote speaker and there was a reception for him prior to his talk. I was able for about twenty minutes to talk to him fairly directly despite the presence of other participants. I told him how his courses changed my life. I remarked how his many books had graced my course syllabi. He asked me what courses I teach and his smile expanded as I rattled them off: Vietnam and America, African-American History, Hiroshima and the Nuclear Age, Capitalism, Socialism and Social Justice, American Protest Music etc. His smile of approval meant: “Yes Peter, I understand who you are and what you are doing as a professor.”

At this time David Horowitz had just released his pejorative Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America and I showed him my copy which included not only Dr Zinn but also myself. He said, “Oh, you are in there? You too? One of my students also in that book!” Again he smiled appreciatively and I glowed with pride to be included with him on the “dangerous” list.

We also discussed my suspension for an emotional, angry anti-war email to Cadet Robert Kurpiel of the Air Force Academy four years earlier that was spaciously covered by Mr Horowitz. Professor Zinn had a wry smile and said something to the effect, I don’t remember his exact words: “Stay in the fight. Good, you are still there and stronger.” I was very affected by this exchange. I felt I had the approval of a man who had inspired my teaching and my resistance against American excesses and crimes.

I asked him: “Dr Zinn, what is your secret on why you have lived so long and so actively.” He noted everyone was calling him “Howard” so why not me; no, he was still my professor. He was still Dr Zinn. He said, “Peter, eat bananas. I eat lots of bananas.” Now I eat lots of bananas and always think about him when I do.

Once I was in his office at B.U. and the phone rang. He got an invitation to speak at some school; I think it was in the south and in one of the Carolinas that wanted him to address the issues of the Vietnam War. I said to him, “Dr Zinn, should I leave?” He waved his hand as if to say “stay.” He said after the call, “Imagine that, a conservative school inviting me!”

On my website I have had for years his name as one of the two most inspirational professors in my training with a link to a Zinn website. His greatness inspired me as it has countless of others. His courage as an educator, labour organiser, antiwar protestor, civil rights activist with S.N.C.C., revisionist historian, advocate for social justice and for democratic socialism will endure. His scholarly oeuvre will endure. His reputation as one of the most significant historians of the twentieth century will endure. As long as I teach and as long as I have students and as long as I have a voice, I will endeavor to perpetuate despite my modest capacities, his foundational emphasis on scholarly activism and progressive change. There is no turning back, not now, not ever.

Two former students e-mailed me this morning informing me about the death of Professor Howard Zinn. That alone sustains my belief in his greatness and in his positive and enduring impact on many of my students.

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