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