My hero died this week. I didn’t really realize that’s what he was until I felt a hole in the pit of my stomach when he died. Howard Zinn, 87, radical, anti-war activist and beloved Bostonian, is the reason why I do what I do. In The Politics of History, he asked: “Are we historians not humans first, and scholars because of that?” He taught me that history can and must be alive, that by telling stories we can effect political change. He taught me that history was important. And I’ve never stopped thanking him.
I first read The People’s History of the United States in high school, when my American history teacher told us that even though there was no textbook for his class, if we wanted to we should read Zinn’s book. My teacher, with his bushy white mustache and always-disturbed combover, his chalkdusted tweed jacket, corduroys worn between the wales, and fading New Balance sneakers, was a Wobblie when he was younger. His belief that American history is fundamentally important to the American present, and that studying history and interpreting it is a political act, has informed me throughout my career. It is as an activist and a historian that I approach cities, their teeming masses, and their layers of history.
I think about how spaces and structures are living remnants of the people who once inhabited them, including the people outside major narratives, the people that Zinn first conjured to speak. The Lower East Side’s tenement houses, the public housing blocks in Chicago, the West End of Boston, razed during Urban Renewal — these physical remnants of painful histories remain long after the people who inhabited them have left. Just as Zinn told their stories, so we must preserve and interpret their places so that memories, however painful, aren’t lost. Because as historians and planners, we are people first, and the personal is always political.
Read Bob Herbert’s wonderful elegy to Zinn, in which he asks if it is so radical after all to believe in peace, equality, and justice. I am so thankful to have seen Zinn speak last year, in a talk about his graphic novel. I can’t believe I had the foresight to bring my battered, first paperback edition of People’s History to his talk, and he actually remarked on it when he signed it. I told him I had read it in high school, and it made me who I am today. Thank you Howard, wherever you are, for giving voices to all who cannot speak and for encouraging us to find our own.