Howard Zinn Criticism

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Ralph Ellison (review date 8 November 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ellison, Ralph. “If the Twain Shall Meet.” Book Week (8 November 1964): 1, 20, 22-5.

[In the following review of The Southern Mystique, Ellison praises Zinn for providing a constructive blueprint for solving the civil rights crisis in the South.]

Howard Zinn's The Southern Mystique is yet another reminder that American history is caught again in the excruciating process of executing a spiral—that is, in returning at a later point in time to an earlier point in historical space—and the point of maximum tortuosity is once again the South.

It would seem that the basic themes of our history may be repressed in the public mind, but like corpses in mystery dramas, they always turn up, again—and are frequently more troublesome. Yes, and with an added element of mystery. “To hit,” as the hunters say, “is history, to miss is mystery.” For while our history is characterized by a swift and tightly telescoped continuity, our consciousness of history is typically discontinuous. Like quiescent organisms in the blood, our unresolved issues persist, but with our attention turned to other concerns we come to regard the eruption of boils and chancres that mark their presence with our well-known “American innocence.” Naturally, this leaves us vulnerable to superstition, rumor, and the manipulation of political medicine men.

Nevertheless, so imperative are our national commitments that while one group in our historical drama inevitably becomes inactive once the issues that aroused it are repressed, a resuscitation of the old themes will find a quite similar group taking its place on the redecorated stage. Frequently unaware of the earlier performers of its roles—because flawed, as are most Americans, by an ignorance of history—the new group dresses in quite different costumes but speaks in its own accents the old vital lines of freedom.

Thus, the First Reconstruction saw a wave of young whites hurrying South to staff the schools the Freedmen's Bureau was establishing for the emancipated slaves. Enthusiastic, energetic, self-sacrificial, these young teachers are long forgotten, yet they were the true predecessors of the young white Northerners now participating in the sit-ins and voter-registration drives that mark the Second—or resumption of—Reconstruction. Today's young crusaders are predominantly students, but here too, acting in the ranks and as advisers, are teachers like the author of The Southern Mystique.

Presently an associate professor of government at Boston University, Mr. Zinn has been chairman of the history department at Spelman College, a school for Negro women located in Atlanta, Georgia. His book is an account of his experiences as member of an integrated faculty, as resident in a predominantly Negro university community, and as an adviser to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. It attempts to confront the problems arising from the Negro's quest for civil rights—and the white Southerner's agony in accepting change—not with slogans nor with that smug attitude of moral superiority typical of many Northerners' approach to the South, but with a passion to discover a rationale for hope and a theoretical basis for constructive action. Significantly, Mr. Zinn places the burden of insight and sympathy upon the outsider, and thus upon himself.

With such works as The Southern Mystique, Calvin Trillin's An Education in Georgia, and Bernard Taper's Gomillion vs. Lightfoot, the Second Reconstruction is receiving its on-the-spot documentation, as once again young Northerners are bent upon trying to reduce the ethos and mystery of the South, and our involvement in it, to some semblance of human order. Mr. Zinn would give us a human perspective on the present struggle and in this sense his book belongs with such works of the First Reconstruction as The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten and Thomas Wentworth Higginson's Army Life in a Black Regiment. Like these, in reporting a social action it reveals a state of mind.

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(The entire section is 39,920 words.)