In 2008 Rethinking Schools and the Washington, D.C.-based education nonprofit Teaching for Change joined together to form the Zinn Education Project, dedicated to promoting the teaching of a people's history in middle and high schools throughout the United States. The Zinn Education Project recently launched a new website, www.zinnedproject.org, that features over 75 downloadable teaching articles, drawn mostly from the archives of Rethinking Schools magazine, and hundreds of teaching resource recommendations: books, curricula, and audiovisual materials.
In early January, the Zinn Education Project joined with HarperCollins, publisher of Howard Zinn's classic A People's History of the United States, to sponsor an "Ask Howard" online radio interview, and invited teachers from around the country participate. Sixty teachers and students submitted written questions to Professor Zinn. The Jan. 19 interview was conducted by Rethinking Schools Curriculum Editor Bill Bigelow. This turned out to be Howard Zinn's last broadcast interview. He died in California just eight days later.
We are honored to present these excerpts from that interview, edited for length and clarity. The full audio version can be accessed in the news section at www.zinnedproject.org. -the editors
Bill Bigelow: Howard, thank you for agreeing to answer teachers' questions about teaching a people's history.
Howard Zinn: How could I refuse?
Bigelow: With the horrific events of the last week, I'd like to begin with Haiti. Randall Robinson, the founder of TransAfrica Forum, was on Democracy Now! recently, and he said that now is an opportunity "for the American people to at long last learn the full truth about Haiti and about our relationship with Haiti." What do you think this means for history teachers? What should we be teaching to help students make sense of what's going on there today?
Zinn: The first thing we ought to recognize is that in American education we learn nothing about Haiti-which is remarkable. Think of how close Haiti is to us and how significant Haiti is. Haiti's was the first war for independence in this hemisphere after the American Revolution. Haiti was an independent republic. It had fought against Napoleon's France, stimulated by the French Revolution, and then had won independence. This was a remarkable thing.
The United States, interestingly enough-and this is the first thing that people should know because it is such a forerunner of what happens in the next several centuries-the United States, which had just gone through a revolution itself, refused to recognize the independent country of Haiti, refused to recognize the revolutionary regime. And from that time on, the United States' relationship to Haiti has been paternal, imperialist, negligent. So we become the richest country in the hemisphere and Haiti the poorest country in the hemisphere, and the United States does nothing to alleviate the poverty or help the people of Haiti. In fact, just the opposite: The United States maintains and supports the brutal military regime of the Duvalier government in Haiti after World War II. And the United States is hostile to the first popularly elected president of Haiti, [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide. And the United States has essentially carried on an embargo against Haiti, which has kept that country poor. And in recent years the International Monetary Fund, which is mostly a creature of the United States, has ruined Haiti's agricultural situation, preventing them from growing their own food and sugar and insisting on them buying from other countries. And so, we have contributed to the ruin of Haiti, to their lack of food self-sufficiency. They grew a lot of rice, but now they don't grow rice because they're forced to buy rice from other countries.
In other words, people should learn-students should learn-that the relationship between Haiti and the United States has been the relationship of an oppressed colony to an imperial power. That's the background of what is happening today.
Bigelow: This reminds me of the article that you wrote, "Empire or Humanity: What the Classroom Didn't Teach Me About the American Empire." Students have no way to fit Haiti into a broader pattern of U.S. involvement throughout the world.
Zinn: Yes. Think of this: Woodrow Wilson is considered one of our great presidents and they talk about him as an idealist who created or helped create the League of Nations, and so on and so forth-for self-determined nations. But he did not want self-determination for the Haitians. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson sent in the army to put down a Haitian rebellion so that the United States could continue maintaining control over Haiti, and that occupation lasted for a long time. It lasted from 1915 to 1934. So again, our relationship with Haiti has been very cruel and unjust and that is the background of what is going on today.