What are the theses and myths in the chapters of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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As we are limited in space, below are a few ideas to help get you started. First, let's discuss exactly what a thesis is so you know what you're looking for and can easily find it. A thesis states the claim an author is trying to prove. A thesis will never be a statement of fact, like the Arawak Indians brought Christopher Columbus and his crew gifts, but it will be based on fact. Rather than being a fact, a thesis will express an author's opinion about a subject/fact, and then the author will use facts to support and prove his/her opinion. We can also call an opinion a claim or argument. Montana State University gives us the following example of a thesis: "Increasing the state tax on cigarettes will adversely affect not only the nicotine addict but his or her family as well" ("The Thesis Statement and the Essay Map"). When reading an essay or journal article, it becomes easy to find the thesis because the thesis will always be located in a specific spot. In an essay, the thesis is the last one to two sentences of the introductory paragraph, or paragraphs, depending on how long the essay is. In a journal article, the first place you'll find the thesis is in the abstract, and it will again be stated somewhere within in the first couple of paragraphs of the article. With Howard Zinn's chapters in his book A People's History of the United States, while his tone is clearly expressed from the start, giving us the ability to glean what his thesis will be, his true thesis may not actually be stated until much later. Tone is defined as an author's "perspective or attitude" towards the subject he/she is writing about (Literary Devices, "Tone"). In other words, the tone expresses the author's own emotions towards the subject. Careful word choices can portray an author's tone as feeling bitter, resentful, ironic, or even peaceful, accepting, and inspired. Since the tone expresses the author's attitude towards the subject, tone also goes hand in hand with the author's thesis, or claim. So, identifying the tone can help the reader begin to understand the thesis, even if the thesis isn't specifically stated for quite some time. Let's take a look at the first chapter as an example.

In "Chapter 1: Columbus, The Indians, And Human Progress," Zinn's tone is clearly expressed in the very first paragraph. Zinn describes Christopher Columbus's arrival at the Bahama Islands near the Americas in the following sentence: "When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks [Indians] ran to great them, brought them food, water, gifts." Take a careful look at how just this one simple sentence juxtaposes the attitude of Western people, as exhibited by Columbus, against the attitude of these new aboriginal people. In his careful word choices, Zinn juxtaposes "swords" against "gifts" to further juxtapose the Western civilization's tendency towards possessing dominant, aggressive, greedy, and even manipulative attitudes against the Arawak's hospitable and caring nature. Zinn's juxtaposition is further expressed in his sentences:

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable ... for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of the popes, the government of the kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

From just these opening lines, we can clearly see that Zinn's tone towards the subject is one of irony and perhaps even heartfelt disgust. We can tell from these lines that Zinn is about to expose exactly what happened the day Columbus arrived in the Americas, including all of Columbus's brutality, which, both sadly and ironically, can be tied back to a culture governed by popes and kings. As we continue to read, we see further atrocities described in detail and are shocked and brokenhearted to learn that such good people could have been treated in the manner in which Columbus and his people treated them. Finally, we reach the thesis when Zinn exposes that we don't learn about any of these atrocities in US schools, which he states in the sentence, "When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure--there is no bloodshed--and Columbus Day is a celebration." He adds further to his thesis when he points out that only in some adult history books do we read hints concerning the cruelty that Columbus, his people, and the rest of Western culture were guilty of. He even points to Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison who, in his multivolume biography on Columbus titled, Christopher Columbus, Mariner, calls Columbus's actions toward the Indians a "complete genocide." Zinn even goes on further to describe how peaceful, harmonious, and even cultivated Indian societies were all over the US, societies that treated children without any of the Western traditions of cruelty and women as socially equal with men. Zinn even quotes John Collier, a prominent American Indian scholar, as saying, "Could we make [Indian culture] our own, there would be an eternally inexhaustible earth and a forever lasting peace." Zinn does however allow for the possibility that some of history's descriptions of the Indians' peaceful and equal society may be somewhat romanticized and a myth. Therefore, Zinn defines the myth in this chapter as being the possibility that the description of the Indians' peaceful, harmonious, egalitarian, sharing, and caring society has been romanticized; however, he also concludes by stating that even if Indian culture is a myth, it should make us question the ethics behind Western culture's "annihilation of races" for the mere sake of what the West considers to be economic and social "progress."

Hence, Zinn's thesis for the first chapter is to assert that US school children are taught nothing about Columbus's cruelty and not taught to question the West's destruction of and domination over the aboriginals; however, he also allows for the possibility that some of our understanding of Indian culture is a myth.

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