In chapter 1, Zinn argues that most history texts pretend there is such a thing as “The United States”—a community of people with common interests. What are the “communities” that Zinn...
In chapter 1, Zinn argues that most history texts pretend there is such a thing as “The United States”—a community of people with common interests. What are the “communities” that Zinn identifies?
In chapter one of his indictment of the United States and the United States’ European progenitors, titled “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” Howard Zinn attempts to demolish the notion of American exceptionalism and the notion of the United States of America as a single unified entity. In this opening chapter, after depicting the victimization of North America’s earliest known settlers, Zinn argues against categorizing the United States or any “nation” as a community of like-minded individuals unified in a common system of beliefs:
“Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex.”
As A People’s History of the United States continues, Zinn repeatedly emphasizes the concept of “community” for the purpose of illustrating the vast ethnic, linguistic, religious, and social diversity prevalent across North America that collectively denies, he believes, the notion of the United States as a community. Accordingly, he refers to communities comprised of individual Native American tribes, as when he refers to Zuni and Hopi Indians, as “Indian communities” and “Creek communities.” He also mentions “slave communities” and “industrial communities.” His point, as noted, is that the massive diversity of any “nation” undermines the legitimacy of nationhood as it is currently understood. Additionally, Zinn argues that communities themselves are not immune to the kind of fractionation that characterizes nations. He writes, “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many,” and he spends considerable time in his book reinforcing this notion.
The essence of Zinn's work is that he focuses on "communities" as opposed to the United States as a singular community. For Zinn, the problem with the standard read on history and the standard American History textbook is that it does not adequately reflect that "America" is comprised of different voices with different agendas.
The communities upon which Zinn focuses are individuals that feature different interests than the single ruling class. Zinn's emphasis are on the "minority" communities which, put together, "actually end up representing the majority." Groups such as Native Americans, women, the working class, people of color, and those of different intellectual persuasions are the communities that Zinn identifies in his analysis. He focuses on these groups because when seen as a "community of people," they actually represent a majority. While their voices have been largely neglected by the traditional history text, Zinn believes that these voices are the "people's voices" in American consciousness. To focus on these voices is where Zinn's emphasis lies and one that he believes reveals a greater understanding on what it means to be "American."
Zinn believes that to write about the United States and its history "as the history of a family" obscures the very real conflicts of interest among different parts of the community. Rather than present American history as the "memory of states," as Kissinger called it, Zinn also presents the views of other communities. These include the conquered (for example, the Arawaks), not just the conquerors, and the slaves, not just the masters. Zinn also writes about workers, not just bosses, and about those who are dominated by a system that privileges white men. His account includes communities such as the Native Americans (for example, the way in which Cherokees were affected by Jackson's Indian Removal), the Irish and the way they saw the Civil War, young working women in the Lowell mills, the Cubans and Filipinos during the Spanish-American War, African Americans during the New Deal, and other communities. His interest is not only in the way in which the dominant group looks at history but the way in which other communities with different interests have experienced American history.