historian and author of many books, including A People’s History of the United States and Voices of a People’s History of the United States, which has been adapted into a new play, Rebel Voices, opening at the Culture Project in New York tomorrow.
The new play "Rebel Voices" is based on the book, "Voices of a People’s History of the United States," by historian Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. It features dramatic readings of speeches, letters, poems, songs and petitions of people like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, as well as contemporary voices such as Iraq War resister Camilo Mejía. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Allison Moorer singing "A Change Is Gonna Come." She was performing the song at the Culture Project here in New York, where she is taking part in a new play opening tomorrow night. It’s called Rebel Voices, and it’s based on the book, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, by historian Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. It is the companion volume to Zinn’s legendary People’s History of the United States, which has sold over a million and a half copies.
Rebel Voices features dramatic readings of speeches, letters, poems, songs and petitions. They are the words of people throughout U.S. history who have struggled against slavery, racism, war and oppression, people like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, as well as contemporary voices such as Iraq war resister Camilo Mejía and Patricia Thompson, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina.
AMY GOODMAN: Past performances of Voices of a People’s History of the United States have featured acclaimed actors, musicians and activists. This is Kerry Washington reading the words of Sojourner Truth, Danny Glover reading John Lewis, Sandra Oh reading Emma Goldman.
SANDRA OH (reading Emma Goldman): We Americans claim to be a peace-loving people. We hate bloodshed; we are opposed to violence. Yet we go into spasms of joy over the possibility of projecting dynamite bombs from flying machines upon helpless citizens. Our hearts swell with pride at the thought that America is becoming the most powerful nation on earth, and that it will eventually plant her iron foot on the necks of all other nations. Such is the logic of patriotism.
KERRY WASHINGTON (reading Sojourner Truth): Look at me. Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman?
DANNY GLOVER (reading John Lewis): To those who have said, "Be patient and wait," we must say that patience is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient. We do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.
We won’t stop now. All the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond won’t stop the revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own "scorched earth" policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Danny Glover performing as John Lewis and Emma Goldman performed by Sandra Oh, Sojourner Truth by Kerry Washington.
Howard Zinn joins us now from Boston, Professor Emeritus at Boston University, author of People’s History of the United States. Welcome to Democracy Now! How does it feel to have your work performed on the stage here in New York, Professor Zinn?
HOWARD ZINN: Well, it feels good to listen to Kerry Washington and Sandra Oh and Danny Glover speak the words of figures who have been marginalized in the traditional history books. You won’t find Emma Goldman getting much attention in conventional histories. And the talk she gave on patriotism, which you heard Sandra Oh speak, that talk she gave on patriotism in the early part of the 20th century is something that is so relevant to what is going on today. Emma Goldman spoke against war and against militarism.
And to hear Kerry Washington read the words of Sojourner Truth — "And ain’t I a woman?" — that’s something that everybody in one way or another can say: "Ain’t I a person? Don’t I deserve to live?" That’s something GIs over in Iraq can say. That’s something the Iraqis themselves can say. "Don’t we have a right to be considered human beings?"
So I’m very happy that there in New York the Culture Project is putting on stage actors who will read the words of historic figures — Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Cindy Sheehan — people who are not going to be heard in the mainstream press or in the mainstream history books, but whose words are so vital and so pertinent to what we face today.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the importance of these voices of resistance at a time when — of resurrecting them at a time when so much accommodation is occurring to what the United States is involved in around the world, even among many right here in our own country?
HOWARD ZINN: The word "accommodation" brings to mind the Democratic Party, which was voted into power in Congress in 2006 and which has shown us a pitiful example of what an opposition party should be, accommodating itself basically to the Bush and Republican agenda, accommodating itself to the sort of orthodox political notion that you must be timid and quiet and not speak the truth.
And the advantage of bringing back these historical figures is that these people give us an example. They spoke the truth no matter what. They took chances, they took risks. And so, we need to listen to them and to be inspired by them and to have us realize that wherever we are, whatever walk of life we are, our job is to speak loudly, to speak boldly, to tell the truth, and with the idea that the truth has a power which is very special, and if people keep uttering the truth, the idea will spread and a power will be created that even those who hold the reins in Washington, whether the Democrats or Republicans, will have to listen.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, we began today’s show with Congressmember Dennis Kucinich, who has been trying to force the issue of impeachment, wanting to start with the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney. The Democratic leadership is fighting hard to stop it from coming to the House. Your thoughts on that issue as an historian and an American?
HOWARD ZINN: I believe that impeachment is an issue that should be raised all over the country. If Congress and the Democrats are too timid to raise it, then it should be done in grassroots meetings all over the country. I understand at least 30 or 40 town meetings in Vermont have called for impeachment, that local groups in various parts of the country have called for it. It’s the kind of situation that we faced on the eve of the revolution against England, where the colonial officials were not going to lead a fight against England, and so people gathered in various towns in the colonies, and they formed committees of correspondence, and they brought up the issue of independence.
We need to bring up the issue of impeachment, because when you bring up the issue of impeachment, whether it succeeds or not — I mean, the idea of counting votes to see whether you’re going to win an impeachment misses the point. To bring up impeachment would excite the country, because it would force a discussion on all the most fundamental issues on the war, on civil liberties, on the stealing of the people’s money to pay for the war and to enrich the rich. Impeachment would excite the country. And if the people in the leadership of the Democratic Party don’t realize it, then the rest of us should try to make them realize it.
I applaud Dennis Kucinich for bringing it up. I hope that John Conyers, who is head of the Judiciary Committee and who at one time showed signs of being a true progressive and a leader of and person of courage, I wish that John Conyers would stop playing with Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic policy of conciliation and caution. And John Conyers, as head of the Judiciary Committee, could hold hearings and start the ball rolling on impeachment. I think everybody who is listening to this broadcast, everybody should write, talk, email their congressman, email John Conyers, and demand that they begin the impeachment process against Cheney, against Bush. I think it would galvanize the energy of the country in a good direction.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Howard Zinn, I’d like to ask about an issue that is increasingly dividing many Americans and ask for your historical perspective on it. A year and a half ago, the nation was rocked by massive demonstrations of immigrants across the country. Millions of people poured into the streets, some of the largest protests in American history, over the issue of legalization of the undocumented here in this country. And now many Republicans are seeking to make this a major issue in the coming presidential elections. Many Democrats seem to be hiding on the issue or not dealing with it. Your response to how immigration has been used, and immigrant scapegoating in the past, in American history?
HOWARD ZINN: It goes way back. I mean, how ironic, since we are a nation of immigrants, right? There are the Native Americans, and there are all the rest of us who are immigrants. And every immigrant coming here after an earlier wave of immigrants is looked upon as a foreigner. The idea of an "illegal immigrant" does not make sense. It is not a human way to approach people.
And we have gone through anti-immigrant waves at the turn of the 17th century — that is, at the end of the 18th century, end of the 17th century. We’ve gone through the periods of anti-immigrant feeling, the Alien Sedition Acts of 1798. And then we went through the anti-Irish feeling of the 1830s and 1840s. And then when the Europeans from Eastern and Southern Europe began coming in, we faced anti-immigration, anti-immigrant feelings in this country. And they are all odious, because they are anti-human.
The signs I remember carrying in those demonstrations, they were talking about — the signs said, "No human being is illegal." That’s how we should look upon the situation. And if all people are created equal, then that applies to wherever you are born, whatever border you have crossed. And I think we ought to begin speaking boldly, and the Democratic Party is shameful in its timidity on this issue. And I hope we won’t forget that immigrants are human beings, and legal, illegal, or wherever you were born, once you are here in this country, you deserve the same rights as everybody else.
AMY GOODMAN: In a historical perspective, Howard Zinn, on this privatization of war that we’re seeing, you just heard the conversation about Blackwater, more on more killings in Iraq.
HOWARD ZINN: Well, privatization on a scale that we are seeing it now is really new. We’ve always had corporate power involved in war. There’s always been profiteering in war. The J.P. Morgan Company made huge amounts of money in war. Great fortunes were made in the Civil War. And in World War II, again, there was money made in World War II, even while men were dying over in Europe and in Asia. But we’ve never seen privatization and corporate profit on such a scale as we are seeing now in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I mean, this is a capitalism run wild, what a recent pope actually — I think it was Pope John Paul — called savage unbridled capitalism. And it’s time for us to look not just at Blackwater and the current phenomenon, but look at the whole idea of an economy and a society which is based on pleasing the corporations and giving the corporations as much money as they want, to the detriment of everybody else. We must take a good look.
AMY GOODMAN: Howard Zinn, we have to leave it there, but I thank you very much for joining us. The play Rebel Voices opens this weekend in New York at the Culture Project. Many will be performing in that on a rotating basis, including Ally Sheedy and Danny Glover and Eve Ensler and others.