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How Howard Zinn Helped Propel Efforts To Erase Columbus Day

Christopher Columbus

Today, if you want to celebrate Columbus Day, a federal holiday since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, you might be called a “white nationalist.” That is what Maulian Dana, a Penobscot National tribal ambassador, called Waterville, Maine, Mayor Nick Isgro when he announced he would issue a Columbus Day proclamation in defiance of a new state law making the holiday Indigenous Peoples Day.

In 2002, other Italians, a fictional family on the television series the “Sopranos,” were depicted as struggling with what would become widely known as “white privilege.” As is often the case on television, junior was presented as the wise one educating parents, in his case with Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” at the breakfast table.

In the episode, the son, A.J., reads from Zinn’s book, “’They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subgate them’” (his mother corrects his pronunciation—“subjugate”) “’and make them do whatever we want.’” He asks, “That doesn’t sound like a slave trader to you?”

His mother comments that George Washington, “the father of our country,” had slaves. She tells her husband, Tony, that “history teacher, Mr. Cushman, is teaching our son that if Columbus were alive today he would go on trial for crimes against humanity like Milosovic in, you know, Europe.” When Tony asks if this is true, A.J. responds, “It’s not just my history teacher. It’s the truth. It’s in my history book.”

Tony comments that the book is “bullsh-t. . . . You had to walk in Columbus’s shoes to see what he went through.” He states (erroneously) that “people thought the world was flat” and then—drum-roll—Columbus came upon an “island with a lot of naked savages. It took a lot of guts. Remember when we went to Florida with the heat and the bugs.”

With a Greta Thunberg, wisdom-of-children prescience, A.J. remarks that was no excuse for “us to murder people and put them in chains.”

Mom interjects that Columbus was “a victim of his time.” It doesn’t matter, A.J. counters: “It’s what he did.” This is too much for Tony. He blusters, “He discovered America is what he did! He was a brave Italian explorer. And in this house Christopher Columbus is a hero! End of story.”

Of course, neither the Soprano family nor television viewers saw the pages from which A.J. was reading. He did not note there are ellipses in that passage. And under normal circumstances there would be no need to note that because ellipses are never used to eliminate critical information. But as I discovered in writing “Debunking Howard Zinn,” Zinn’s ellipses here and in other places leave out information that indicates the opposite of his message that the United States was founded upon an unremittingly exploitative capitalist system.

The ellipses in the passage A.J. reads indicate not a phrase or sentence but two days’ worth of journal entries from Columbus, including the sentence, “I know that [the Indians] are a people who can be made free and converted to our Holy Faith more by love than by force.” In these famous, mostly plagiarized, opening pages, Zinn also omitted passages about Columbus giving orders to his men to treat the natives they met with kindness.

Also ignored is the fact that Columbus, in his reference to natives making “fine servants,” was likely making an observation about why they were being targeted by another tribe from the mainland. Acknowledging this would complicate Zinn’s objective of presenting Columbus as setting the pattern for future explorers and colonists in exploiting universally peaceful, egalitarian Indians.

This view, essentially the one promoted by Marxists but wildly popularized by Zinn’s bestselling textbook, has permeated education. In Maine, Colby College emerita professor of American history Elizabeth Leonard (whose specialty is Civil War and post-Civil War race and gender issues, not indigenous history or anthropology), when asked to comment, echoed Zinn by stating that Mayor Isgro’s proclamation seemed “to be an effort to elevate and celebrate the importance of what Columbus’ arrival in the so-called ‘New World’ did for (white) Europeans, while simultaneously dismissing as irrelevant the devastating consequences of European imperialism for indigenous peoples who had been living here for tens of thousands of years . . . creating culture, organizing communities, honoring nature, loving, having children, being human.”

After Isgro read the proclamation, residents and students stood to “chastise” the mayor for “glorifying a man they said was responsible for raping, pillaging, enslaving, and murdering indigenous people.”

All this virtue-signaling ignored the intertribal battles and conquests throughout the continent before the first European stepped ashore. Similarly, few choose to remember the lynching of 11 Italians on suspicions of killing the Irish police chief in New Orleans in 1891, one of the largest mass lynchings in America. This was the year before President Benjamin Harrison called upon Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery. The lynching added to the anti-Italian sentiment of the time, a group not seen as “white.”

Zinn died in 2010, but his work continues on through the Zinn Education Project that in September collaborated with the Smithsonian in offering credit-bearing “teach-in” classes on abolishing Columbus Day for teachers. On October 8 they mailed out a newsletter that lauded two states, Maine and New Mexico, and cities, such as Columbus, Ohio, and Alexandria, Virginia, that in the past year replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Also just joining the list are Washington, D.C. and Princeton, New Jersey.

The newsletter urged teachers to purchase and download their materials to lead students in lobbying their schools and cities to join the effort to “Abolish Columbus Day.”

“Celebrating Columbus means celebrating colonialism, celebrating racism, celebrating genocide,” the newsletter announced. Instead, “tribute” should be paid “to the people who were here first, who are still here, and who are leading the struggle for a sustainable planet.”

The political agenda is clear. Like Zinn himself, the project presents the American Indian as one amorphous mass embodying the stereotype of communistic pacifist feminists. It’s the “Usable Indian,” which at one time embodied the “savage,” but then in the 1960s the hippie. The Indian serves as proxy in the never-ending “struggle.”

In the 1960s and 1970s it was for free love and ending a war against Communist North Vietnam. Today, it’s for “a sustainable planet”—or the Marxist Green New Deal and for casting all patriotic white people as “white nationalists.”