I was sixteen years old, standing amidst the broken-tiled, yellow-walled Food Not Bombs (FNB) kitchen in Cleveland, the first time I heard the name “Howard Zinn.” I was, at this point in my life, a vaguely-punk, bleeding-heart liberal who understood ‘the system’ with little to no nuance (e.g.,”war is bad! bill clinton is good!”…huh?), but something in my guts told me I was destined for Leftier endeavors. So, when my first radical boyfriend told me about FNB, I decided that it would be my foray into radical political culture. FNB, I learned, is a movement dedicated to feeding hungry people with “re-claimed” food, protesting insidious effects of capitalism (particularly war and poverty), and existing as non-hierarchical and autonomous; seemed like the perfect place to up my political/punk cred.
It became immediately clear to me, however, that I had a lot to learn if I was going to be accepted in this community. Everyone in the kitchen spoke in what sounded like a different language, one full of acronyms and inside-jokes. (“The RCP totally infiltrated, and so we couldn’t have a productive conversation about the DA at the WTO, especially because the ISO started freaking out about some anti-Trot comment one of the ARA kids made on some ABC blog“….for example). I searched for something to bring to conversation, anything over which I had an ounce of authority…To my delight, a puffy cat appeared right as I was beginning to panic. I could totally talk about cats! I know cats!
me: what’s your kitty’s name?!
me: is she named after a particular ’emma’?
dirg: (after a pause that seemed to last a century) emma goldman. she’s…she was an anarchist. wait a minute.
Dirg got up from the table where he had been chopping carrots and disappeared into the living room. No one said a word to me, and I focused intently on peeling a potato.
When dirg returned he had in his hands, A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.
“Read this,” he ordered, “just make sure you bring it back next week.”
(Incidentally, Zinn wrote the introduction for the Food Not Bombs handbook).
I often credit FNB to radicalizing me, but maybe I ought to pay more homage to Howard Zinn. I felt transformed after reading that book, and it started to give me the confidence I needed to participate in conversations with my new radical comrades.
HZ continued to impact my life in many ways. During my senior year on one of the first National Day’s of Action Against the War in Iraq, I hung up posters all over my school with Zinn’s quote: “There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” I was reprimanded for hanging signs without permission, and questioned as to why I stopped standing up for the pledge of allegiance every morning. HZ gave me the courage to not only question authority, but to defy it.
I got to see Howard speak at the School of the Americas Protest in Fort Benning, Georgia. He was charismatic and brilliant and everything (and more) that I expected him to be.
Years after that, I got to see a performance of Zinn’s “Emma,” a play about Emma Goldman’s life (i was about three years into identifying as an anarchist at this point, so fortunately I didn’t need to ask “to which emma is the title referring?”). It was one of the most beautiful pieces of theater I’ve ever seen. I shared it with my partner at the time, and by the end of the play, when the cast begins to sing “L’International,” we were both in tears.
Howard Zinn was a remarkable thinker, historian, and activist. His work has undoubtedly offered space for the potentiality of transgression and defiance, and also tools for organizing. I am grateful for the profound ways his words have shaped my politics, my relationships, and my activism. Most importantly, I am grateful for his belief in the incredible fortitude of the people; it is because of this that I have found strength to continue on in the struggle for a better world.