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A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn
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In A People's History of the United States, why does Zinn ask, "Are the conditions of slavery as important as the existence of slavery?"

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In A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn asks, "Are the conditions of slavery as important as the existence of slavery?" because he wants his readers to get down to the reality behind the details of slavery that are so commonly told. Let's think about this is more detail.

We often read about slaves being horribly punished or sold and separated from their families. We hear horror stories about whippings. We study how slaves were prohibited from being legally married or earning their own money or receiving an education. Sometimes, on the other hand, we learn about masters who were kind to their slaves and allowed them more freedom than usual. We reflect on how slaves coped with their lives under many different circumstances.

All of this is important, and it all deals with the conditions of slavery. Yet we need to see behind these conditions and recognize the fact at the heart of the matter. These human beings, people just like us, were enslaved. They were owned by another person. They did not possess the right to their own bodies and their own lives. They could not make their own choices for themselves. This is what Zinn means when he refers to the existence of slavery, and this is what we have to come to terms with before the conditions of slavery make any sense, no matter what those conditions were.

The existence of slavery, therefore, is arguably more important than the conditions of slavery, for if slavery never existed, it would not have any conditions to examine.

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