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What was Howard Zinn's intention in writing 'Unsung Heroes'? Analyze and discuss.

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Singing unsung heroes?

Howard Zinn's article 'Unsung Heroes' was published in The Progressive, June 2000. I want to give a brief analysis and interpretation of Zinn's intentions in writing this article. First I want to take a look on the article itself, followed by an interpolation through background information on Zinn's person.

The text is largely composed of examples of people, who Zinn suggests as alternatives to the U.S.-American pantheon of hero*ines. The first and obvious intention here is to question hegemonial historiography and to point towards marginalised and opressed parts of history - represented by people who enacted against oppression and where therefore marginalised and criminalised. It is an attempt towards an undistorted interpretation of history. Zinn addresses the present discourse on who earns the label "hero*ine", which is in part determined by the historical discourse.

Besides those many examples of 'Unsung Heroes', the intention is laid out in the first, second and last paragraph. In the question how to not being "alienated and depressed" due to all the cruelties that happened and still happen "in the richest country in the world" - which is also the question how to deal with the contradictions in capitalist societies - he suggests that "[t]o ward off alienation and gloom, it is only necessary to remember the unremembered heroes of the past, and to look around us for the unnoticed heroes of the present."

Let us take a look on the author. Born in 1922 he served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and flew combat missions in Europe from 1943 to 1945. After his experiences in war he later engaged in anti-war activism. As a professor of History at Spelman College (1956-1963) he participated in the Civil Rights movement. He therefore was dismissed in June 1963. Later he worked as a professor of Political Science (1964-1988) at Boston University. In 1980 he published "A People's History of the United States: 1492 – Present" in which he wrote down many parts of American history, that are neglected and concealed in hegemonial historiography. He is deemed to be a polticial activist and academic anarchist. With this background we can interpolate some other intentions in writing the article. As he wrote: "The same misguided values that have made slaveholders, Indian-killers, and militarists the heroes of our history books still operate today". The intention there is to question values and, on this basis, develop new emancipatory views and practices. He also addresses American liberalism, which holds up bourgois ideals of liberty that are blatantly contrasted by historical facts, which are therefore neglected. A strategy to open up a discussion and revision of bourgois values towards a more progressive term of liberty is the one followed by Zinn, who is illuminating those historical facts and figures.

One drawback may be the low public awareness of what the mentioned figures stand for, even in academic circles. With this little information there are few personal outmarks to identify with. I doubt the general publics superstition regarding figures like Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti permits to call them heroes. Besides the dispute on who we want to call hero*ines and wether I have outlined Howard Zinn's intentions correctly or not, we already are thinking for ourselfes about what the intentions - to write such an article - could be. In the same breath we already engage in a critical discourse and its emancipatory potential, and I would rather guess that Howard Zinn had this already in mind.

( johnny / Andreas Klaura ) ( first revision )


Topic revision: r3 - 06 Jun 2008, AndreasKlaura


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