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Howard Zinn Talks with OpEdNews about "The People Speak"

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Welcome to OpEdNews, Howard. Your documentary "The People Speak" aired last night on the History Channel. I was hoping to give our readers a bit of the backstory about this project. But, "The People Speak" and its precursor, A People's History of the United States , are themselves the backstory of American history. Would you like to speak about that?

Howard Zinn

Okay, Joan, let me try to summarize the history behind last night's screening of "The People Speak."

About ten years ago, Fox Television approached me about the idea of doing a series of feature films based on episodes from my book A People's History of The United States. They knew the book was selling more and more copies each year, and Matt Damon had plugged it in the film Good Will Hunting, in which Ben Affleck had co-starred, and which had been produced by Chris Moore. The idea was that Matt and Ben and Chris and myself would work together on a TV mini-series. It turned out to be too ambitious, too unwieldy an idea.

Another network took it up for a while, then gave up on it. It lay fallow for some years until Chris Moore, about three years ago, approached me with the idea that he would produce it, not as a feature film, but as a documentary. In the meantime, Anthony Arnove and I had co-edited a companion volume to A People's History: a collection of about two hundred documents -- speeches, memoirs, poems, songs, snatches of literature, based on the principle of history from the bottom up that had animated A People's History.

The format, of having actors reading historical documents, had worked for us in 2003, when my publisher wanted to celebrate the millionth copy sold of A People's History, and we enlisted actors and artists to read from the stage of the 92nd St. Y in New York -- James Earl Jones reading Frederick Douglass, Marisa Tomei reading the reminiscence of a New England mill girl in the 1930s, Danny Glover reading the protest of a black Georgia legislator being expelled from the legislature after the Civil War, Kurt Vonnegut reading Mark Twain opposing the Philippine war and Eugene Debs opposing World War I, Alice Walker reading the words of the Mississippi sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, and more.

The reaction of the audience to this was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. We then held a series of live performances of readings in cities around the country, mainly organized by Anthony Arnove and myself. About two years ago, we assembled a group of actors to do readings in Boston at the beautiful Emerson Majestic Theater. Viggo Mortensen, Josh Brolin, the poet Martin Espada, Marisa Tomei, Danny Glover, the Broadway actors Harris Yulin and Kathleen Chalfant, the young actress Q'orianka Kilcher, the singers John Legend and Allison Moorer, the performance artist StaceyAnn Chin, rapper, and others.
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There were four performances recorded on camera, which became the basis for "The People Speak." Other readers were recorded in other parts of the country: Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman. And more songs were recorded, by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder. The History Channel decided to take it on -- a very important development, and we then produced a 90-minute version which they showed last night (Dec. 13) at 8 PM Eastern. There will be a two-hour DVD coming out in January.

part of "The People Speak" crew

What a project! I understand that the documentary shown last night was culled from a whopping 96 hours of recorded material.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana said many years ago, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." In a way, "The People Speak" takes that thought and flips it on its head. Because, when we learn [from your books and the film] that ordinary people worked together over our history to bring about change, we can emulate that history-changing activism to set America back on course
now . Was that the motivation, or part of it, behind your work?

Absolutely. I wrote A People's History coming out of my own experience in the southern movement against racial segregation and in the movement against the war in Vietnam. I had seen the possibility of ordinary people building a movement that could change official policy and I knew the history of such movements was absent from our textbooks and culture. In making this film, we wanted that history to speak to our present situation, to encourage people to become active, to show that supposedly powerless people can have power if they organize, if they persist.
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he Declaration of Independence plays a starring role in "The People Speak." What do we gain from a re-reading of that text?

Okay, the Declaration of Independence: important because it is a radical statement about one of the most important issues in political philosophy, the relationship between the government and the people. Its radicalism (superseded after the Revolution by the conservative, law-and-order Constitution) leads it to be overlooked, hung on classroom walls and reproduced on July 4th in newspapers but its ideas ignored.

[It was] even considered dangerous -- as when, during the Vietnam war, an army lieutenant tacked the Declaration to his barracks wall and was ordered to take it down. It says that governments are secondary, and people are primary, that governments are artificial creations, set up by the people to achieve certain ends (equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) and when governments "become destructive of these ends" it is "the right of the people to alter or abolish" the government.

That's revolutionary. It is democratic in the true sense of the word, a manifesto for civil disobedience, appropriate for mobilizing a population for war against an oppressor, but to be discarded once the war is won and the new leaders want stability. [It is also] egalitarian.

One of the producers, Matt Damon, was once your next door neighbor; another, Josh Brolin, read A People's History as a teenager; someone at the History Channel was one of your former students. In addition, many of the musicians and actors had also read A People's History and eagerly signed onto the project. Your classroom has expanded way beyond a mere four walls on a college campus. And your book has been around for long enough to touch succeeding generations of Americans. Did you ever imagine having such an impact when you first began teaching sixty-some years ago?

p.r. for "The People Speak"

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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Whatever works to get more Americans to pay attent... by Steven G. Erickson on Monday, Dec 14, 2009 at 11:55:49 PM
whatever works, indeed. ... by Joan Brunwasser on Tuesday, Dec 15, 2009 at 6:36:54 AM
Reading Howard Zinn helped me quite literally chan... by Sally Davis on Tuesday, Dec 15, 2009 at 11:47:03 AM
you have a very interesting story to tell. please ... by Joan Brunwasser on Tuesday, Dec 15, 2009 at 4:22:31 PM
Great job. Great man. I met him in LA last summer.... by Linda Milazzo on Tuesday, Dec 15, 2009 at 4:25:26 PM
and you hit the nail on the head. he's not only be... by Joan Brunwasser on Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009 at 7:24:23 AM
Joan, Thanks for the article. I'm so surprised th... by Marta Steele on Tuesday, Dec 15, 2009 at 10:48:57 PM
you are quite right. Zinn is a ground-breaker, whi... by Joan Brunwasser on Wednesday, Dec 16, 2009 at 7:27:23 AM


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