Don’t know much about history?

Here are two must reads to help set the record straight.

Zinn: “A People’s History of the United States” and Cohen/Murrow: “Rethinking America’s Past”


November is such a busy month, perhaps the busiest of them all. For the November issue of my community’s monthly magazine, The Breezes, I wrote a column about how jam-packed the eleventh month is. Here’s the column’s first paragraph.

Ah, November, a busy month indeed. I’m sure you’re aware of the “usual suspects,” Election Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving…but did you know that November is also Child Safety Protection Month, National Adoption Awareness Month, Native American Heritage Month and Peanut Butter Lovers Month (go figure). Not only that, the following “days” occur during our eleventh month – All Saints Day, Sandwich Day, Book Lovers Day, Young Readers Day, World Kindness and World Peace Day, National Adoption Day, Eat a Cranberry Day and, of course, in our intensely acquisitive world, Black Friday.

I’ve attached the column and, if you read it, you’ll see with so much about November to write about, I focused on Veterans Day, calling the piece, “November: A Time to Give Thanks to Those Who Served.”

In my original submission there was a paragraph or two about the origins of Thanksgiving that the magazine’s editor asked me to take out. Her rationale was that the magazine is a community publication with residents from all sides of the political spectrum; mixing in “historical opinion” with the good cheer the magazine is supposed to provide would be divisive, she counseled. I took her points and deleted the offending section. The editor was right. For this type of magazine, eliminating the controversial commentary allowed readers to better focus on my main point, “But, if there’s one holiday in November that does deserve our everlasting gratitude, it’s Veterans Day.”

Given that Around the Block thrives on controversy, I thought you might be interested in what I deleted:

I think you’d agree that of all of those, November is most identified by Thanksgiving, if for no other reason than it is, for many, a four-day, holiday enhanced by a great, if not over-the-top, meal. More importantly, Thanksgiving’s heritage is based on the idea that, in an agrarian society, thanks should be given for the blessing of the previous year’s harvest. In 1621, this is indeed what the Pilgrims did. But the actual history bears little resemblance to what most Americans are taught in grade school, historians say. There was likely no turkey served. There were no feathered headdresses worn. And, initially, there was no effort by the Pilgrims to invite the Wampanoag Indians, who taught them how to plant beans and squash to make the feast possible.

Not wanting to put too much of a cloud over this wildly popular holiday, in 1637, 16 years after that original Thanksgiving, Massachusetts colonists celebrated the burning down of Pequot Indian villages, massacring hundreds of Pequots and inspiring Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor Bradford to proclaim that Thanksgiving from then on would be celebrating “the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.

I guess, when it comes to “white supremacy,” the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I wrote The Breezes article over a month ago. Since then I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure to spend some time with a good friend of mine, Sonia Murrow. Sonia, who is an Associate Professor of Secondary Education at Brooklyn College, just published a book, co-authored with Robert Cohen, Professor of History and Social Studies Education at NYU, called, “Rethinking America’s Past: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the Classroom and Beyond.” Sonia and Dr. Cohen’s book is really a book about a book, focusing on how Zinn’s seminal work, “A People’s History of the United States,” became the de facto alternative history textbook in middle and high schools, selling over three million copies in the process.

What makes Zinn’s book and “Rethinking America’s Past” so important? And how does it relate to my deleted Thanksgiving commentary?

From the publisher:

No introductory work of American history has had more influence over the past forty years than Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States…Zinn’s iconoclastic critique of American militarism, racism, and capitalism has drawn bitter criticism from the Right, most recently from President Donald Trump, who at his White House Conference on American History in 2020 denounced Zinn as a Left propagandist and accused teachers aligned with Zinn of indoctrinating students to hate America and be ashamed of its history.

Rethinking America’s Past is the first work to use archival and classroom evidence to assess the impact that Zinn’s classic work has had on historical teaching and learning and on American culture. This evidence refutes Trump’s charges, showing that rather than indoctrinating students, Zinn’s book has been used by teachers to have students debate and rethink conventional versions of American history. Rethinking America’s Past also explores the ways Zinn’s work fostered deeper, more critical renderings of the American past in movies and on stage and television and traces the origins and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of A People’s History in light of more recent historical scholarship.

And in a review of Cohen and Murrow’s book, Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education writes:

In this important new book, Cohen and Murrow remind us why Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is too important a book to be forgotten. Through careful analysis of his seminal work, the authors show us how the book can be used in classrooms today to remind students that from the very beginning, America’s history has been shaped by oppression and resistance, conflict as well as cooperation among those who have frequently been rendered invisible by the grand narratives that have been constructed in the name of patriotism and allegiance. For educators and students who know that history is much more than a collection of facts and dates, and who seek to understand the social processes that have shaped the formation of this nation, this book will be an invaluable resource.

Noguera’s points bear repeating:

“…have students debate and rethink conventional versions of American history,” “…remind students that from the very beginning, America’s history has been shaped by oppression and resistance,” “…grand narratives that have been constructed in the name of patriotism and allegiance,” “…history is much more than a collection of facts and dates…”

The first chapter in “A People’s History of the United States” is devoted, not surprisingly, to Christopher Columbus, covering early Native American civilization in North America and the Bahamas and exposing the truths behind the Columbus myths we learned in school. My October 11 column, “Cancel Culture has taught us that Christopher Columbus and Robert E. Lee have one thing in common…” explored some of those same myths.

For that effort some readers suggested that I’ve been overcome with “Cancel Cultureitis.”

My response,

Sorry to tell you, but the “facts” I listed are, indeed facts. Christopher Columbus was a hero to every boy and girl when we grew up. But since Italian Americans have latched on to him as their exemplar of “Italianism” the communication of those facts is at odds with their goals.  We’ve learned plenty since we were kids: Robert E. Lee was a terrible general; Grant, who we were told was a drunkard, was a great general…and a pretty fair president (ranked 20 out of 45, ahead of both Bushes, Carter, Nixon and Andrew Jackson). Speaking of Jackson, a Democratic Party hero when I was a kid, he was a racist who did great harm to Native Americans, including the Seminoles here in the Southeast. And the Spanish conquistadors who we honored as heroes, were, like Columbus, out for glory and gold, decimating (actually too weak a word) everything and anyone who stood in their way. 

Zinn’s book was published in 1980, long after most of us were in school. That’s unfortunate, if for no other reason that many people of a certain age still believe the lies our teachers told us. It’s not too late however, if not just for us, but for our kids, grand-kids, nieces and nephews and all those certain aged people who still believe those lies.

There’s an old shibboleth, “History is written by the victors.” Thanks to Howard Zinn and now Sonia Murrow and Robert Cohen, we all might be able to put that cliché to rest.

Published by Ted Block

Ted Block is a veteran “Mad Man,” having spent 45+ years in the advertising industry. During his career, he was media director of several advertising agencies, including Benton & Bowles in New York and Foote, Cone and Belding in San Francisco; account management director on clients as varied as Clorox, Levi’s and the California Raisin Advisory Board (yes, Ted was responsible for the California Dancing Raisins campaign); and regional director for Asia based in Tokyo for Foote, Cone where he was also the founding president of FCB’s Japanese operations. Ted holds a Bachelor’s degree in communications from Queens College and, before starting in advertising, served on active duty as an officer on USS McCloy (DE-1038) in the U.S. Navy. Besides writing Around the Block, Ted is also a guest columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

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