A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line part 3

Next Zinn attempts to add additional context to why the British settlers in Virginia didn’t take the Native Americans as slaves:

They couldn’t force Indians to work for them, as Columbus had done. They were outnumbered, and while, with superior firearms, they could massacre Indians, they would face massacre in return. They could not capture them and keep them enslaved; the Indians were tough, resourceful, defiant, and at home in these woods, as the transplanted Englishmen were not.

Everything Zinn writes above may be true. But it was no less true of the Spanish, or of the Native Americans the Spanish first encountered. Here Zinn really makes no argument at all.

All Zinn would have to do is go back and read Chapter 1 of his own book to see that Columbus’ men were outnumbered, and the natives of Caribbean were at home while the Spaniards were not.

This particular paragraph by Zinn is more baffling than most. Since usually we can understand the underlying cause of Zinn’s errors – his bias. But here, such a mistake doesn’t even necessarily fit with his worldview except in so far as to help him build a case for the inevitability of the British settlers importing black slaves.

In part 4 of Drawing the Color Line we look at Zinn’s poor showing as a historian in all its glory.

A People’s History – Chapter 1, on women in Native American society

Here is Zinn on women’s role in Iroquois society:

Women were important and respected in Iroquois society. Families were matrilineal. That is, the family line went down through the female members, whose husbands joined the family, while sons who married then joined their wives’ families. Each extended family lived in a “long house.” When a woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband’s things outside the door. Families were grouped in clans, and a dozen or more clans might make up a village. The senior women in the village named the men who represented the clans at village and tribal councils. They also named the forty-nine chiefs who were the ruling council for the Five Nation confederacy of the Iroquois. The women attended clan meetings, stood behind the circle of men who spoke and voted, and removed the men from office if they strayed too far from the wishes of the women. The women tended the crops and took general charge of village affairs while the men were always hunting or fishing. And since they supplied the moccasins and food for warring expeditions, they had some control over military matters. As Gary B. Nash notes in his fascinating study of early America, Red, White, and Black: “Thus power was shared between the sexes and the European idea of male dominancy and female subordination in all things was conspicuously absent in Iroquois society.” (Zinn 20)

And here is Edmund S. Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom  regarding the Native Americans around the Virginia colonies:

House and furniture alike could be put together without heavy labor. Building them was women’s work.

Men provided clothing in the form of skins taken in the hunt. But Indians, like well-to-do Englishmen, apparently regarded hunting as sport. Hunting grounds might be some distance from the village; and when hunting season came round, the whole tribe picked up and moved, the women preceding the men in order to build temporary housing. The hunt itself was a cooperative venture among the men, in which they set fire to an area, enclosing a group of deer or driving them into the water, where they could be killed from canoes. The men were also in charge of fishing, which they did with weirs and nets, as well as with spears and hooks. But the Virginia Indians did not rely on hunting or fishing for most of their food. They relied principally on the nuts and fruits they gathered and on the corn, beans, and squashes or melons that they grew. Tending the crops was also women’s work.

Indeed, nearly any activity that could be designated as work at all was left to the women. They were the principal means of production in Indian Virginia, Having acquired a wife (for whom he may have had to pay a bride price), a man counted on her to support him. He could make canoes, weapons, and weirs without losing his dignity, but the only other labor he ordinarily engaged in was clearing fields for planting, and the method employed made this less than arduous. Clearing consisted merely of girdling the trees and burning brush around them to hasten their death. The next year the women worked the ground between the trees, using a crooked stick as a hoe and planting corn, beans, squash, and melons all together in little hills. (Morgan 51)

Edmund S. Morgan is not some far right wing or some obscure irrelevant historian. He was Emeritus Professor of History at Yale University, where he taught from 1955 to 1986. Additionally, Morgan is directly quoted by Zinn no less than five times through A People’s History of the United States.

A People’s History – Chapter 2, Drawing the Color Line

I put the last part of Chapter 1 on hold for a few weeks. Was getting exhausting correcting every single sentence.

So I’m going to start posting some stuff on Chapter 2. Chapter 2 of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is called Drawing The Color Line. The chapter is Zinn’s imagining of the origins of racism and racial tensions in the United States. It is a chapter about the origins of the Atlantic slave trade and the institution of slavery in the New World, particularly in British colonies of North America.

These posts on Chapter 2 will appear over the next couple weeks in no particular order. I may publish a more coherent response to Chapter 2 of Zinn’s book in the future. But, for now, it will just be my initial notes.

One of Zinn’s theses in Chapter 2 is that slavery in the America’s was uniquely bad in all the world. He writes:

African slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from plantation or mining slavery in the Americas, which was lifelong, morally crippling, destructive of family ties, without hope of any future. African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave. (Zinn 27)

There is a lot to unpack in those few short sentences, so bear with me.

Zinn finds American slavery to be “the most cruel form of slavery in history” for two reasons: it was apparently driven by capitalism or free markets – which I will get to in a minute – and it was underpinned by racism.

My first thought is that Zinn’s argument is a bit of a tautology. ‘Why was American slavery so bad? Because of the racism. Why did America have such a problem with racism? Because slavery.’

Beyond that, I could ask the question posed by Zinn any number of ways. I could say ‘American slavery is hardly to be praised. But it was far different from slavery in Arabia. American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the castration of all men and boys, and the sexual exploitation slavery of the women.’

And really, I could restate this sort of argument a dozen times over with different points.

Stefan Molyneux over at Freedomain Radio has already done several of the restatements for me: 

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While many children were born to slaves in the Americas, and millions of their descendants are citizens in Brazil and the USA to this day, very few descendants of the slaves that ended up in the Middle East survive.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While two out of every three slaves shipped across the Atlantic were men, the proportions were reversed in the Muslim slave trade. Two women for every man were enslaved by the Muslims.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While the mortality rate for slaves being transported across the Atlantic was as high as 10%, the percentage of slaves dying in transit in the Trans-Sahara and East African slave trade was between 80 and 90%.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “While almost all the slaves shipped across the Atlantic were for agricultural work, most of the slaves for the Muslim Middle East were for sexual exploitation as concubines, in harems, and military service.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

American slavery lacked an element that made Arabian slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: “Most slaves who went to the Americas could marry and have families, most of the male slaves destined for the Middle East were castrated; most of the children born to the women were killed at birth.” (Molyneux, Slavery 32:45)

Now, if you found yourself reading the paragraphs above and asking “What is the Arabian slave trade?” Then I highly recommend you watch or read Molyneux’s entire presentation on slavery. I will try to avoid completely regurgitating his work here.

And now onto Zinn’s declaration that  it was “capitalistic agriculture” which drove the American slave trade. Let’s put it right up front, capitalism and free markets are the antithesis of slavery. Only with government intervention and backing could slavery exist. Otherwise slaves would simply go find other work. Again, Molyneux:

The Atlantic slave trade, rather being the result of a market process, developed under the confluence of two non-market factors. First of all, slavery already existed in the tribal African societies, which were the sources of the slaves, before the arrival of the Europeans. Second, the slave trade was not founded by private firms but was established by the colonial powers which instituted monopolies to exploit the indigenous slavery. The Dutch West India Company was chartered in 1621, and the Royal Company of Adventurers for the Importation of Negroes was formed in 1662. (Molyneux, Slavery 33:56)

More over, it required all sorts of non-capitalistic, non-free market supports to keep slavery going in the British colonies of North America and later in the United States: government forced slave catching gangs and legal prohibition on manumission to name but two.

So, was American slavery “the most cruel form of slavery in history”? I will leave that to question to someone more wise than I.

What is certain is slavery was NOT a byproduct of capitalism or free markets. Slavery is the exact opposite of free markets.

Beyond that, I’m not sure how much the slaves being forced into mining camps or sugar plantations or cotton fields in the Americas or the slaves in the Muslim world having their penis and testicles removed and their children aborted at birth were concerned with the level of racism in the hearts of their slave masters.

Was it some consolation to the men and women being sold into bondage that their masters still saw them as human beings as they castrated and raped them?

Use in Schools – A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Some of the Schools and School Districts around the country using Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the curriculum:

The School District of Philadelphia Assigns the Book to Highschool students.

Constitution High School assigns the first three chapters to students taking 11th grade AP US History as summer reading ahead of the course.

As part of the school district’s “Read for Your Life” Campaign for Literacy, Bartram High School included A People’s History on a reading ‘Wish List.’

Miami-Dade County Public School System

Ronald W. Reagan/Doral High School Cambridge AICE Social Sciences 2014 Summer Reading List AICE American History (11th Grade)

MAST @ FIU Biscanye Bay Campus AP US History 2015-2016

MAST @ FIU Biscanye Bay Campus AP Government & Politics: US

Miami Northwestern Senior High School United States History

TERRA Environmental Research Institute (Secondary School) Social Sciences and TV Production

Los Angeles Unified School District

East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy at Estaban E. Torres High School 11th Grade History

Abraham Lincoln High School Complex Thematic Units Humanitas

The Humanitas Academy of Art and Technology 11th Grade History

Belmont High School attendance area within the Pico Union community of Los Angeles PERFORMING ARTS AND DESIGN TECHNOLOGY 10th Grade World History, English and Design

Belmont High School attendance area within the Pico Union community of Los Angeles School of Social Justice 11th Grade

Seattle Public Schools lists Zinn’s website among its Global Education Curriculum Resources

Popularity – A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

Daniel J. Flynn

Executive director of Accuracy in Academia and author of the newly released, :Why the Left Hates America: Exposing the Lies That Have Obscured Our Nation’s Greatness.”

The New York Times’s reviewer (no doubt a cousin of Jayson Blair) declared that the book should be “required reading” for students. Professors have heeded this counsel. Courses at the University of Colorado-Boulder, UMass-Amherst, Penn State, and Indiana University are among dozens of classes nationwide that require the book. The book is so popular that it can be found on the class syllabus in such fields as economics, political science, literature, and women’s studies, in addition to its more understandable inclusion in history.

Amazon.com reports in the site’s “popular in” section that the book is currently #7 at Emory University, #4 at the University of New Mexico, #9 at Brown University, and #7 at the University of Washington. In fact, 16 of the 40 locations listed in A People’s History’s “popular in” section are academic institutions, with the remainder of the list dominated by college towns like Binghamton (NY), State College (PA), East Lansing (MI), and Athens (GA). Based on this, it is reasonable to wonder if most of the million or so copies sold have been done so via coercion, i.e., college professors and high school teachers requiring the book. The book is deemed to be so crucial to the development of young minds by some academics that a course at Evergreen State decreed:

This is an advanced class and all students should have read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States before the first day of class, to give us a common background to begin the class.

Sam Wineburg

Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and a professor of history at Stanford University, and the director of the Stanford History Education Group. He is the author of dozens of scholarly articles and the award-winning book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has few peers among contemporary historical works. With more than 2 million copies in print, A People’s History is more than a book. It is a cultural icon. “You wanna read a real history book?” Matt Damon asks his therapist in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting. “Read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll… knock you on your ass.”

The book’s original gray cover was painted red, white, and blue for its Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition in 2003, and it is now marketed with special displays in suburban megastores. A week after Zinn’s death in 2010, A People’s History was number 7 on Amazon’s bestseller list – not too shabby for a book first published in 1980.

Once considered radical, A People’s History has gone mainstream. By 2002, Will Hunting had been replaced by A.J. Saprano, of the HBO hit The Sapranos. Doing his homework at the kitchen counter, A.J. tells his parents that his history teacher compared Christopher Columbus to Slobodan Milosevic. When Tony fumes “Your teacher said that?” A.J. responds, “It’s not just my teacher – it’s the truth. It’s in my history book.” The camera pans to A.J. holding a copy of A People’s History.

 In the 32 years since its original publication, A People’s History has gone from a book that buzzed about the ear of the dominant narrative to its current status where, in many circles, it has become the dominant narrative. The book appears on university reading lists in economics, political science, anthropology, cultural studies, women’s studies, ethnic studies, Chicano studies, and African American studies, in addition to history. A People’s History remains a perennial  favorite in courses for future teachers, and in some, it is the only history book on the syllabus.

In 2008, the National Council for the Social Studies invited Zinn to address its annual conference – the largest gathering of social studies teachers in the country. Zinn’s speech met with raucous applause, after which copies of A People’s History were given out to attendees courtesy of Harper Collins. Writing in the organization’s newsletter, its president Syd Golston hailed Zinn as “an inspiration to many of us.” Back in 1980, who could have predicted that a book that cast the Founding Fathers as a shadowy cabal who foisted on the American people “the most effective system of national control devised in modern times” would one day be featured on the National History Education Clearinghouse’s website, an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education?

David Green

Professor of journalism and media studies and of history at Rutgers and the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (Norton), among other books.

[Matt] Damon later turned the book into a History Channel series, and in time it also launched a raft of spin-offs. By Zinn’s final years—he died in 2010—the franchise was earning him some $200,000 annually.

Chris Beneke and Randall Stephens

Chris Beneke is an associate professor of history and sports history at Bentley University and the author of Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism. Randall Stephens is the author (with Karl Giberson) of The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.

What exactly is it about Barton’s and Zinn’s versions of history that inspire such uncompromising, take-no-prisoners fervor? And how do they manage to wield so much influence, given the widespread skepticism about their accuracy?

Partisanship is the first answer that comes to mind. Barton and Zinn have served as eloquent and vocal supporters of right- and left-wing causes respectively, and both have reworked the past for transparently political purposes. Each has offered conclusions that resonate with his audiences’ beliefs. Whatever the validity of their claims, in other words, many readers apparently think they should be true. (It’s also likely that partisanship accounts for some proportion of votes against Barton and Zinn’s credibility.)

But that’s only part of the explanation. There’s a more insidious mechanism that helps explain both the passionate support these authors inspire and the well-founded suspicion that they are fudging the record. In short, Barton and Zinn have each crafted a sort of Da Vinci Code history. Nearly everyone knows the basic plotline of that bestselling Dan Brown novel, which leads readers via a highly dubious series of clues to the previously undisclosed origin of Christianity while unraveling the malicious web of deception that concealed it for centuries.

Adapting this gripping storytelling approach, Barton and Zinn offer audiences the illusion that they have been hoodwinked by undisclosed authorities — Ivy League academics, textbook authors, the New York Times, eighth-grade social studies teachers, parents. They give readers the intellectual self-assurance that accompanies expertise without the slog of unglamorous study required to attain it.

The message is that you, dear reader, know something that the vast majority of unenlightened chumps do not. For devotees of Barton and Zinn, it’s as though a switch has been flicked and everything in a darkened room illuminated. (Barton compares his labors to those of a soldier who discovers an IED and then alerts others.)

Now, Barton and Zinn aren’t conspiracy theorists exactly, but they press the same psychological buttons. Barton’s hyper-patriotic Christian founding narrative and Zinn’s unmasking of elite white male criminality offer the dual satisfaction of solving a mystery and showing up a teacher. This double-win is so sweet that readers might not wish to entertain any non-complying facts, and so easy that wrestling with more complicated accounts will seem pure drudgery. Read Barton and you see vividly how pointy-headed secularists stole our Christian heritage from us. Read Zinn and you understand how capitalism has robbed us of justice itself. Scales fall from your eyes.