Monday, March 12, 2012

A People's Read-a-long: Week 9

Welcome to Week 9 of A People's Read-a-long! We're reading a chapter a week, and I'm finding the pace deligtful. Note: we've switched to posting every other week instead of every week. (Missed the first seven posts? Check out my posts for weeks onetwothreefourfivesix and seven.)

My thoughts: Chapter 8, entitled "We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God," focuses on expansionism, a trend in recent chapters, with an emphasis on the Mexican-American War. As a reader, I must say, I'm losing a sense of time in this book. It's not told in a strictly linear manner, and the themes are often the same in the book as a whole. I'm embarrassed to say knowing Polk is the President does not clue me in to which year it is. I do appreciate, however, when Zinn emphasizes the shifting demographics rather than years: "Whereas in 1830, 1 percent of the population of the United States was foreign-born, by the Mexican war the number was reaching 10 percent." What was most notable in this chapter to me is how much time Zinn spends quoting others. As I read on my Kindle, frequently an entire page was made up of direct quotes. I'm curious if that's a trend that will continue as we move forward in time to periods where better records were kept and more primary source material may be available. Ultimately, Zinn sums up this war succinctly: "It was a war of the American elite against the Mexican elite, each side exhorting, using, killing its own population as well as the other." The biggest surprise of the chapter--its title is not just Zinn's cynicism shining through; it's a quote from a newspaper justifying the war and ceding of New Mexico and California because the U.S. paid Mexico $15 million.

Chapter 9, entitled "Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom," focuses on slave rebellions, the Civil War and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and racial violence after the war. It's a particularly dark chapter from it's first paragraphs: "With slavery abolished by order of the government--true, a government pushed hard to do so, by blacks, free and slave, and by white abolitionists--its end could be orchestrated so as to set limits to emancipation." This chapter began as a return to earlier discussions of slavery in this book.  For all of the harrowing aspects of this chapter, I appreciated that Zinn mentioned some of the positives, including the strength of slave marriages and family ties. He asserted "music, magic, art, religion, were all ways, he says, for slaves to hold on to their humanity." Deep in this long-term strategy is the truth that can bind us all together: our humanity and how we find ways to connect with one another even in the darkest times. It's difficult to read this book and truly confront the horror of our history, and somehow these small details provide hope.

One of the most intriguing parts of this chapter was Zinn's treatment of Lincoln: "He opposed slavery, but could not see blacks as equals, so a constant theme in his approach was to free the sales and to send them back to Africa." I also didn't realize how bloody the Civil War was: "600,000 dead on both sides, in a population of 30 million." It's a big enough number on its own, but in the context of a small country, it's even more illuminating.

All in all, this chapter was excruciating to read and left me in tears throughout most of it. Given it's dark tone, the chapter ends with an intriguing quote from W. E. B. Du Bois and Zinn's pontification: "Was Du Bois right--that in that growth of American capitalism, before and after the Civil War, whites as well as blacks were in some sense becoming slaves?"

Intrigued? Read along! Buy A People's History of the United States from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (the Kindle version.) You don't have to post each week. Stop by Fizzy Thoughts and Life...With Books to join the conversation!

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  1. You have so much patience for this book, and I think that's so wonderful! I have sort of lost a lot of my reading mojo with this one because Zinn seems to harp on things and make repetitive statements with repetitive themes. I am glad that you are enjoying it though, and I look forward to your recaps because they give me the gist of the material in succinct bites that I can readily grasp.

    1. Thanks! This book really speaks to me. I feel like Zinn provides historical context to so many issues I have with contemporary society. It's really resonating with me, and I'm particularly glad to be reading it during the election season.

  2. I, too, am glad you're liking the book, as hard as it is at times. You're our sole Zinn cheerleader!
    I think I expected too much...I'd heard for years that this was such a great and important book (which it is).But somehow, that translated into really great writing in my head. Plus, he was fascinating to listen to in the movie version, so I was expecting to be more engaged by the book. My bad.

    1. Rah rah Zinn! I wonder if having seen the film impacts your enjoyment too. I'll wait to watch it until I finish. Thanks for giving me the push to finally read this one!

  3. Your write-ups are always so good. I almost want to wait to see what you say before figuring out what I think. I'm really getting bogged down by Zinn's writing. You made a good point about the positive aspects of what he said about slavery; I kind of lost that in all the rest of the stuff that surrounded it. And I was surprised to learn that about Lincoln too … though as a reader on my blog commented, it isn't the completely full story.


Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!