This Book 'Will Knock You on Your Ass'

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Last week we talked some about the similarities between What Hath God Wrought, and Howard Zinn's A People's History of The United States. We talked about the problems with Zinn's book, but also about the debt historians like Howe owe to Zinn. Anyway, Cynic hit on something I meant to highlight:

There's no question that, as history, Howe's work is vastly preferable to Zinn's. After all, Zinn wasn't striving for accuracy; he traded in polemic. He wrote to shock, to challenge, to instigate. The details mattered less than the general thrust, and his book abounds with errors, of omission and commission alike. 

But, despite my distaste for Zinn's methods, I have to acknowledge that his work - and the more careful monographs of innumerable scholars with similar inclinations - laid the necessary groundwork for a magisterial synthesis like What Hath God Wrought. When Zinn wrote, so many of these narrative threads had been largely neglected. His work was both a call to action, and a crystallization of a shift already under way. The painstaking recovery of ground-level details was the necessary prerequisite for filling in the blank spots in the historical canvas. 

When I think of Zinn, I think of Will Hunting enthusing that his book "will knock you on your ass." I know that Matt Damon meant the line as a tip of the hat to his friend and neighbor, but it actually works better than intended in the context of the screenplay. It's a perfect illustration of Will's blend of knowledge and naivete; his pugnacity overcoming his intelligence. And I'm sure that Zinn will continue to delight new generations of schoolboys, eager to be told that everything their teachers taught them was wrong. But I like to think that, for his drive out to California at the end of the film, Will might have picked up a copy of someone like Howe or MacPherson.

In high school, as I was getting conscience, I read a lot of "knock you on your ass" books, the kind of stuff that may not hold up well as you get more conscience, but basically says, "You've been lied to." That message was correct—we had been lied to. (In some high schools, kids are still being lied to.) But the problem was those who were delivering that message had, in many cases, gone too far to the other end.

Obviously, many of my "knock you on your ass" books were the work of black nationalist, and Afrocentric historians—Chancellor Williams' The Destruction Of Black Civilization is a good example. The book doesn't hold up primarily because, like the Eurocentric scholars it critiques, it reads race 2000 years back into history. But if you believe that Africa was an illiterate, uncultured, uncivilized wasteland—the dominant narrative of Africa for most of this country's history—then Destruction will, very much, knock you on your ass and leave you what that "I've been lied to" feeling.


There's a part in WHGW where Howe blatantly says that, first and foremost, the way to understand Andrew Jackson is through the lens of white supremacy. Statements like that, throughout the book, left me feeling like I was reading one of my old Afrocentric "knock you on your ass" books. Of course Howe isn't an Afrocentric, but I like to think that his perspective is informed by the long war waged by black historians since the 19th century to correct the American narrative.

The "I've been lied to" sensation is a good one I think--as long as it leads to skepticism, as opposed to cynicism, and, as Cynic says, as long as you don't stop there. What I got from both Zinn and Williams was not so much the answers, but the impulse to keep searching for questions. There should be no sacred cows. We are generally grateful to those who brought me to consciousness, but ultimately we have to critique them too. That's the whole point.

Some of us came to healthy eating from How To Eat To Live. Talk about not holding up.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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