Here in their own words are Frederick Douglass, George Jackson, Chief Joseph, Martin Luther King Jr., Plough Jogger, Sacco and Vanzetti, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Mark Twain, and Malcolm X, to name just a few of the hundreds of voices that appear in Voices of a People’s History of the United States, edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove.
Paralleling the twenty-four chapters of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Voices of a People’s History is the long-awaited companion volume to the national bestseller. For Voices, Zinn and Arnove have selected testimonies to living history—speeches, letters, poems, songs—left by the people who make history happen but who usually are left out of history books—women, workers, nonwhites. Zinn has written short introductions to the texts, which range in length from letters or poems of less than a page to entire speeches and essays that run several pages. Voices of a People’s History is a symphony of our nation’s original voices, rich in ideas and actions, the embodiment of the power of civil disobedience and dissent wherein lies our nation’s true spirit of defiance and resilience.Howard Zinn is famous primarily for A People’s History of the United States, the book in which he presented alternative versions of American milestones, including Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World. Voices of a People’s History of the United States is the follow-up to that original landmark work, but where People’s History contained Zinn’s interpretations of events, Voices turns the platform over to others, in a collection of first-hand accounts, journal entries, speeches, personal letters, and published opinion pieces from the nation’s history.
The purpose of Zinn’s work, Voices included, is to engage in an act of political dissidence and activism. “What is common to all of these voices,” Zinn and co-editor Anthony Arnove write in the book’s introduction, “is that they have mostly been shut out of the orthodox histories, the major media, the standard textbooks, the controlled culture … to create a passive citizenry.” With Voices, Zinn and Arnove seek to address that malaise, showing that the impossible–slaves rising up against their slave masters, for example–is not only possible, but has occurred repeatedly throughout the country’s history. “Whenever injustices have been remedied, wars halted, women and blacks and Native Americans given their due,” they write, “it has been because ‘unimportant’ people spoke up, organized, protested, and brought democracy alive.” The common thread throughout Voices is this mandate, and each selection is preceded by a brief introduction by the authors, written from a far-left perspective. (As an example, one section is titled “The Carter-Reagan-Bush Consensus.”)
Voices often works better as a reference book than a sit-down-to-read title. Its early chapters–on Columbus, slavery, the War of Independence, and the early women’s movement–tend to be more engaging than later excerpts, largely because a contrary point of view to mainstream mythology has been so rarely heard. The modern sections have a haphazard, “greatest hits of the left” feeling, as the book jumps from an Abbie Hoffman speech to the lyrics of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” The problem may be inherent in the format of the book. Everything is treated equally, and a speech by Danny Glover is given as much weight as an excerpt from W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk. For context and background, it’s best to stick with the original People’s History, but to hear the words right from the speakers’ mouths, there’s no better resource than Voices. –Jennifer Buckendorff