A book that changed me: A People’s History of the United States


Today is Columbus Day, a holiday that makes me think of one of the books that changed the way I view the world in a truly fundamental way (and a book not without its problems, which I note below). I first read this book when I was 19. The first pages were startling in their framing of Columbus’ “discovery” of the “New” World. From the outset, Columbus’ arrival is told from the natives’ point-of-view — something I had never considered up to that point:

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

They . . . brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. . . . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features. . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) 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 popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus wrote:

As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.

The information that Columbus wanted most was: Where is the gold?. . . .

. . . Columbus’s report to the Court in Madrid was extravagant. He insisted he had reached Asia (it was Cuba) and an island off the coast of China (Hispaniola). His descriptions were part fact, part fiction:

Hispaniola is a miracle. Mountains and hills, plains and pastures, are both fertile and beautiful . . . the harbors are unbelievably good and there are many wide rivers of which the majority contain gold. . . . There are many spices, and great mines of gold and other metals. . . .

The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. . . .” He concluded his report by asking for a little help from their Majesties, and in return he would bring them from his next voyage “as much gold as they need . . . and as many slaves as they ask.” He was full of religious talk: “Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities.”

From here, the book’s nearly 700 pages cover American history all the way through the Clinton presidency. The book has its critics, like Stanford University School of Education Professor Sam Wineburg:

He says that Zinn’s desire to cast a light on what he saw as historic injustice was a crusade built on secondary sources of questionable provenance, omission of exculpatory evidence, leading questions and shaky connections between evidence and conclusions.

I’m not a historian so I can’t comment on the accuracy or inaccuracy of specific parts of Zinn’s book. From a layman’s perspective, though, the opening of the book appears to quote primary sources (Columbus’ logs) so I feel comfortable setting aside the core critique at least for this section. Zinn’s work has been so politicized that I looked for other sources to corroborate his point-of-view on Columbus’ arrival and found this story from the Smithsonian which also includes quotes from Columbus’ logs:

Columbus had no doubts about how to proceed, either with the lovable but lazy Arawaks or with the hateful but industrious Caribs [the Arawaks’ enemies]. He had come to take possession and to establish dominion. In almost the same breath, he described the Arawaks’ gentleness and innocence and then went on to assure the king and queen of Spain, “They have no arms and are all naked and without any knowledge of war, and very cowardly, so that a thousand of them would not face three. And they are also fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary, and you may build towns and teach them to go clothed and adopt our customs.”

It’s so easy to get into political/cultural wars when discussing these subjects but I think going in that direction can obscure an important lesson that should be universal. My takeaway from reading Zinn is that we can’t recognize Columbus without also telling the story of the Arawaks, even though it makes us uncomfortable. History provides no blank slates. In modern times, when we talk about the hot “new” neighborhood in town, we must also recognize and honor the people who have been displaced. When we lionize CEOs in the business press, we have to also recognize the stories of the workers in their companies and in the supply chains that enable their businesses.  It’s not always comfortable but any honest history should tell the whole story, and I’m grateful to Howard Zinn — even with his flaws — for opening my eyes to that perspective.