Readings From Voices of a People's History of the United States
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When Howard Zinn, America’s best-loved historian, began his work on Voices of a People’s History of the United States (a companion volume to his classic, A People’s History of the United States), his goal was to disrupt the stale paradigm of the inaccurate and at times deceitful representations of US history. In its place, he offered some of our nation’s finest testimonies to living history—speeches, letters, poems, songs—left by the people who make history happen but who usually are left out of history books—women, workers, people of color.
Zinn succeeded exceptionally, and now this phenomenal compilation has been set to stage. This DVD features Zinn and co-editor Anthony Arnove introducing the historical context of various excerpts of Voices. Seven most accomplished actors help bring to life a symphony of our nation’s original voices, rich in ideas and actions, the embodiment of the power of civil disobedience and dissent wherein lies our nation’s true spirit of defiance and resilience.
This groundbreaking DVD includes writer/producer John Sayles reading the journal entries of Bartolome de las Casas upon the conquistadors’ encounter with America’s first peoples in 1542; actor Brian Jones as Frederick Douglass confronting the New England Convention on the hypocrisy of celebrating Independence Day in 1849 amidst institutionalized slavery; and popular actor/director Lily Taylor as Emma Goldman, icon of American anarchism and feminism, performing her scathing critique of blind and ignorant patriotism at the outbreak of the First World War.
Howard Zinn is the author of the best-selling A People’s History of the United States (over one million copies sold) and numerous other works of history, politics, and biography. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Anthony Arnove is an editor, author, and activist based in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Financial Times, and Mother Jones.
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It's impossible for any honest person to not challenge that sort of fairy tale.
Around thirty years ago, I read Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." First, for those who think that's some kind of Marxist diatribe (before the word "liberal" was made dirty by some of your favorite rightwing talk show demagogues), it isn't. Many have reminded us over the centuries that history is often written by the victor. So there is an inherent bias of the victor toward his or her objectives. Zinn's book challenges some of that. It's well researched, well thought out, not just leftie diatribes. So to this day I recommend it.
Then we often lose track of the underdog. We talk about Washington and Jefferson, maybe even include that they owned slaves. But do we hear the side of the slave? (I was at a plantation in Charleston last January in which the docent made it sound like the slaves rather liked it there as their masters treated them so well. I reminded her that the slaves had no choice but to be there. They were effectively abducted from their home lands, and, if they were to have escaped, their chance of death was pretty great.)
This CD, while short, starts with part of a speech by Bartolme de Las Casas who knew what Columbus's crew really did to the Indians they encounted. It includes part of a speech by Frederick Douglass on what July 4 means to black people. There are excerpts of speeches on imperialism (Mark Twain) women (Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth), patriotism (Emma Goldman) and others.
I acknowledge that we may have a tendency to romanticize excerpts in particular. For instance, those of us who challenge the norm sometimes make saints--nearly perfect people--of those we oppressed. And we must remember they were human too. Just remember that the excerpts and the speeches fit into the times and historical circumstances in which they were made. But the "other side" MUST BE heard. This is a great intro to that other side, and it may entice the listener to read the book by the same name, or others which, one hopes, would moderate the view of some Americans that we are the pinnacle of perfection.
If you ever listen to recorded books, you know that the choice of reader makes a huge difference to your enjoyment. Here, the producers of this CD made excellent choices, with most of the cast of readers also contributing acting talent to their roles.
I have read and even heard Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" more times than I can remember, but have never enjoyed it as much as this reading by Kerry Washington. As I worked to get out the votes in our recent historic election, I listened and relistened to Christina Kirk and Josh Brolin re-enacting Susan B. Anthony's address to Judge Ward Hunt and Hunt's futile attempts to silence her during her trial for "knowingly voting without having a lawful right to vote." As people debated whether a black man was electable, I heard Paul Robeson Jr. (what brilliant casting!) read from Langston Hughes' writing about dreams deferred.
Josh Brolin also brings to life Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier during the American Revolution whose writings reveal that being a foot soldier in the Continental Army was a long way from the glory our history books have preserved. Although I am about as WASPy as one can get, my father, who fought overseas with the Army Air Corps in WW II, taught me about and never stopped being ashamed of the detention of Japanese Americans detailed in Sandra Oh's reading of Yuri Kochiyama's "Then Came the War." The list of star performances continues with Sarah Jones, Viggo Mortensen, Lili Taylor, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, and many more.
This CD may well inspire you to read the book from which the readings are excerpted, "A People's History of the United States" (it has me). However, the CD stands on its own as a powerful, moving performance and really, I promise you will be entertained!
This is not entertainment, and it does take some effort to pay attention to the serious matters and the serious comments. Kudos to the people who went to read these quotes, and to the people who made it possible. Something to sit down, watch and discuss with your kids, who will likely have to be begged to pay attention..