Howard Zinn, Gramscian Intellectual

43truth_26_howardzinnAmid  the sadness so many feel these days  at news of Howard Zinn‘s death, and within the scores of tributes that most deservedly continue to pour forth, it should never be forgotten that all his life Zinn wedded his erudition and scholarship to his activism, to being in the street as well as in the reading room. From his working-class Jewish background, his labor agitation on the docks of Brooklyn, the brutally honest self-examination of his role as a fighter bomber in the Second World War, his struggle to be educated in the America of  Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, his head-on collision with racism in Atlanta and attendant institutional foot-dragging at his first teaching post, Zinn forged the tools necessary for his life-long project of wedding erudition to direct involvement in the great moral and political battles of his times. Because of his success in doing so, Howard Zinn is the American embodiment of the Gramscian intellectual, the organic intellectual par excellence. There are scores of progressive and Left scholars and teachers who do fine, necessary and  outstanding work in the classroom and through their research and publications. Zinn was certainly one of them. But what distinguishes Zinn from so, so many others is that  he never privileged the seminar lounge over “the streets”  as a site of activity and resistance.  The last time I saw Howard Zinn was two years ago at an anti-war rally on the Boston Common where he spoke AND THEN marched, joining his octogenarian body and voice to all those demanding an immediate cessation to this American Imperial war without end necessitated by a near totally militarized U.S. economy and society. Similar protests are now being organized to take place in Washington in March. It is indeed sad to think that Zinn will not be there. It is equally sad to contemplate how few will be the intellectuals ready now to occupy  the void left by Zinn. Professor Zinn taught by example whomever truly paid heed that it is not enough to research and write about struggles for justice and peace [to do only that can smack of ‘colonization’  of others’ struggles; a way to amass cultural and institutional ‘capital on the backs of the oppressed’]. Zinn’s life shows, instead, that it is equally and irrefutably important to – as the very homely adage states –  “put your money where your mouth is.”

PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES  not only turns conventional “consensus” historiography on its head as Marx did to Hegel, it serves as a model for intellectual engagement as it simultaneously informs its readers and  inspires them to act upon the acquired  knowledge, to keep the head always attached to the trunk. Zinn’s memory will be honored primarily and precisely by all those who continue to  do so; may their numbers swell.

To add a personal gloss, I have read and re-read in English, Italian and Spanish the PEOPLE’S HISTORY, and I have brought multiple copies in Spanish to Cuba. And perhaps 16/17 years ago, I vividly recall an evening when Zinn gave a talk at the University of Rhode Island. I attended the dinner in his honor given by the History Department prior to the lecture. As luck would have it, by sheer chance, I sat next to Zinn at the restaurant. He was leaving shortly thereafter on a Fulbright to  the University of Bologna, and upon learning that I taught Italian, he had questions to ask about the great Italian city. “Oh, the twice Red Bologna?” I  replied. “Why ‘twice  Red?” he asked. I answered by providing him with more information than he probably required  [example ” {…} also national headquartersof ARCI-Gay, the PCI-affiliated largest organization of Italian Lesbians and Gays” etc. etc.]]  Throughout all my verbal outpouring, he smiled  broadly and chuckled animatedly. He was one of the most gracious, amiable, and humanly tender Movement “big-shots I have  ever met. By what I read and hear, my experience jives with that of all those fortunate enough to have rubbed elbows with the man.

Howard Zinn ·PRESENTE!

— Wallace “Wally” Sillanpoa, La lotta continua

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