Saturday, December 25, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: 'A People's History of American Empire' (2008)

Book Review by JOHN PIETARO:


Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle (with additional scripting by Dave Wagner)

From the American Empire Series

2008 Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co, New York

Springing from the head of historian Paul Buhle, A People’s History of American Empire, brings the visionary writings of Howard Zinn to life in a most mortal, yet powerful manner. While Zinn has, in the past few decades, been accepted as the dean of Left historians, Buhle has been making a joyful noise of his own, writing or editing over thirty books that tell the tale of workers, artists, the blacklist and those who stood up to it. More recently Buhle’s taken to presenting his people’s histories in graphic form: book-length comics. Successes with graphic histories of the IWW, SDS and Emma Goldman have led to this meeting of the minds: Buhle now takes on Zinn’s invaluable People’s History of the United States. To clarify, Buhle and company take chunks of Zinn’s writings from it, adding pieces of the old master’s own life story and later statements. In fact, Howard Zinn, befittingly, is this book’s central character.

Editor Buhle developed this project with Zinn, noted labor cartoonist Mike Konopacki, and writer/unionist Dave Wagner. The imagery within—drawings, photos and striking historic prints--meld into a strong collaborative effort. The results are jarring. We are invited into Zinn’s study, as he painfully contemplates the 9/11 attacks as they occur, with all of the obvious fall-out to come, before being walked through time.

With all of the flair of a classic film, we are transported to a lecture hall bedecked with anti-war banners. From the audience, the reader becomes witness to a priceless Zinn speech which artfully explains the rise of the United States as an Empire. Zinn stands at center stage. His humanity is as apparent as the urgency in his message, as his podium’s top reveals papers, a watch, a bottle of water. We, with the magical eye of a roving camera, observe from all angles including a birds-eye view. This graphic history is more story-board for the film between the book covers.

Zinn remains central throughout APHAE, even when not evidenced in the panel. His voice looms large as the story of Wounded Knee unfolds. This 1890 tragedy, where Native American families were slaughtered by US Calvary, is illustrated in gory reality, but the cartooning is enhanced by sad, chilling photos. The grainy photograph of a slain elderly chief, lying frozen in the snow with grasping hands suspended in rigor mortis—as if he fought even as death overtook him—adds new meaning to the word “graphic”.

The history of the ruling class’ privilege and murderous attempts to keep it are a common thread. The Empire oppresses and destroys its enemies, at home and abroad, and the people fight back. The Robber Barons, the Pullman Strike, the Spanish-American War, mine and factory rebellions, popular culture, life as it was and is.

Like its predecessor, this People’s History should be a staple for teachers with a back-bone. The Monroe Doctrine, which sought to “protect American interests”, sounds eerily familiar, though enacted in the 1850s. Quotes from politicians and military leaders throw egg on the face of those who would hide behind a flag pin. “Third World” nations as US pawns, humiliated and silenced native leadership; it’s an old story. The World Wars, Hiroshima, the Cold War, Civil Rights battles, Vietnam, Nixon, the hostage crisis, Reagan, Iran-Contra, Iraq, and George W Bush as Nero all stink of the greed that devised them. At strategic points, we are enlightened with “Zinnformation” frames, where parallels are drawn between historic events and today’s injustices. All that and the flair of an underground comic. While walking through history, brandish this tool to also reach across generations. Damn, what an idea.

--originally published (in an edited form) in Z MAGAZINE, July 1, 2008--

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