When Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States sold its millionth copy, there was a celebration in New York City. Zinn was there, as were others.

That was a night when the ghosts clustered thick around the audience and the stage; it must have been an exhilarating and disturbing night. Zinn narrated the context as some great performers did readings from critical elements of his book. It’s a really cool format: Zinn would read the piece from People’s History about Frederick Douglass (for example) and then you’d have James Earl Jones reading Douglass’ 4th of July Freedom speech. They called the evening’s performance Voices of A People’s History of the United States. It was a heavy evening.

The room was brought to its feet by the actress who read for Sojourner Truth. Shakespeare would have gnashed his teeth in envy of this performance, then lifted chunks of it. I’d appreciate it if you’d give it a listen; it’s not long.

After the first performance, a filmed version was recorded, which – unfortunately – is shorter, and leaves out Sojourner Truth’s speech. Luckily for you, you can get that on DVD [amazn] Unfortunately, the entire audio version of the first performance has not been published that I am aware of. You can, however, obtain it by donating $250 or more to the Pacifica Radio Archive (as I did) and along with it you’ll get thousands of hours of audio recordings including a half-dozen Howard Zinn speeches, all of Alan Watt’s 1970s radio show about Zen, and a huge mix of other speeches and interviews.

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The version that appears on the DVD is on youtube [here] unfortunately, it’s not the version that had the Sojourner Truth reading. There appear to have been a number of different recordings of this event.

Update: it was Kerry Washington.

Kerry Washington reads Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851) from Voices of a People’s History on Vimeo.


  1. felicis says

    Do you know who the actress is?

    I found two video recordings (annoyingly with the same thumbnail, but different actresses reading – but I don’t think either of them is this one…

    Alfre Woodard

    Alice Walker

    Of course – I am _terrible_ at recognizing voices, so it could be either and I wouldn’t be sure… It appears that there were multiple events too – with a different cast (at least for some of the speakers)…

  2. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#2:
    History as Truth? Makes me nervous. Some historians too.

    Thank you for that link; it’s good stuff.

    Howard Zinn’s relationship with the historical community got interesting. My dad gave me the whole story, once – basically Zinn came along and shone a great big searchlight on “deep rifts” that had been being ignored. On one side were historians that believe that history is an olympian view of events, with a dispassionate interpretation of cold facts designed to illuminate some aspect of the time under study. “Big Histo”s reaction to Zinn was to try to ignore it – nobody wrote reviews, nobody debated Zinn, there were no panels dissecting or arguing with the book at American Historical Society meetings – just silence. By “being political” Zinn had broken a rule; it was like – do you remember the time – back in the day when journalists pretended to be objective, until events and commercial reality showed that even the mighty New York Times was for sale like a congressman (only more expensive). Partly, historians – being fairly liberal people – also didn’t go after Zinn because he was deeply stuck into the civil rights and antiwar movements. There were historians that wished Zinn success though they preferred to stay behind their desks and not get hit on the head by cops. Civil rights and antiwar were the “deep rifts” and Zinn spotlit the hell out of them. But he illustrated another “deep rift” which was that history is an interpretive art; his argument was always, “by choosing what events to incorporate in their history, the historian is not an ‘objective’ observer and analyst – the choice is significant. As Zinn once said, “I wanted to write about what Columbus’ landing looked like from the Arawak point of view. I wanted to write about the history of the United States from the viewpoint of a Cherokee.” The problem with Zinn is: he’s right. The histories of the United States are almost entirely The History of White Guys in North America. That implicitly edits out the presence of others, who were not white guys.

    In its way, Zinn’s book had a similar impact on historians as the replication crisis has had on social scientists: it caused a great big cultural shock in the field, and forced a great number of reluctant historians to re-assess just how olympian their perspective really was. So the book was not only important history, it was important to historians, and a fair number of them will never forgive Zinn for “politicizing history.” I have to side with Zinn’s view that all history is political. Of course it is: it’s written by the victors. What Zinn did was write history from the losers’ viewpoint. Neither is more honest, Zinn himself would agree, but it sure is suspicious that most of the history is being written by and for the winners.

  3. says

    Do you know who the actress is?

    I do not. They didn’t announce the performers in the performance… Wait. I am now doing some more detective work: the performance was in 2005 at the Aritani Japanese Theater in New York.
    (Here is an account of it [latimes].
    Maybe if I giggle around I can find a set-list.

    BOOM: She is Kerry Washington.

  4. says

    I also don’t like using the word “truth” when talking about history. Written history is basically a recording of past human conflicts. And in every conflict there’s always more than one interpretation of what happened. History books are usually written by whoever won the war, and the winners are bound to give their own actions a favorable interpretation. But even when the abused people write their own history, it can get biased, they have a tendency to exaggerate their own suffering.

    One such example comes from Latvian history, and this one was part of my school curriculum. In Latvia there’s the myth of the “700 years long slavery.” Before 13th century several Baltic tribes were living in the current Latvian territory, they had different languages, tribal chiefs, wars among themselves. Then in 13th century German crusaders came and conquered the whole region. For the following centuries the territory got conquered by Poles, Swedes, and Russians. In 1918 Latvia was founded. The “700 years of slavery” refers to the 1201–1918 time period. The idea is that during this time period Latvian peasants were oppressed, abused, and enslaved by the German elites. This myth made it to history lessons in 21st century Latvian schools, but it’s just plain wrong. For multiple reasons: Firstly, yes, it is true that during the medieval period the living conditions of Latvian peasants really sucked. But they weren’t any worse than the living conditions of peasant everywhere else in Europe. It’s not like German or French or Russian peasants had it any better. Secondly, yes, the elites were speaking a Germanic dialect (which, by the way, was very different from modern German language). But among these elites there were also people of Latvian ancestry. There are records of plenty of Latvian families that made it to the top and started speaking German (it’s just that German simply happened to be the language that all rich people were speaking at that time in this region). In the 20th century this myth was used by Latvian nationalists for anti-German propaganda. I don’t even know why school textbooks still have this crap even now.

    by choosing what events to incorporate in their history, the historian is not an ‘objective’ observer and analyst – the choice is significant.

    Yes, and the moment a writer starts interpreting the facts they are writing about, it gets even worse. And most history books have at least some interpretations.

    Among the standard debate topics for debate tournaments there’s also this one: “This house believes that history shouldn’t be taught at schools.” The main argument in favor of dropping history from school curricula is that it’s always biased and it often gets used for promoting whatever political ideas the country’s government endorses. Personally, I find this a very interesting debate:

    In that Sam Wineburg’s paper there was this quote:

    If a white person believes that a Negro in the United States is indifferent to the outcome of a great national struggle, that white person conceives of that Negro as divested of statehood…. The Negro who is indifferent to the outcome of the struggle has stripped himself of allegiance to the state of which he is a native.

    Personally, I feel no allegiance to the state of which I’m a native. I generally don’t give a damn about my nation’s struggles. A bit of homophobia and misogyny and annoying nationalist rhetoric was enough for me to start disliking my country. I find it surprising that victims of racism and all this systematic abuse could still be patriotic.

  5. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#7:
    Speaking of explicitly tendentious history: What the Koch Brothers Want Students to Learn About Slavery.

    “Hey, let’s see if we can prove that Orwell’s dictum about controlling history was right.”