Reflections from Prison on A People’s History

Trumbull signHoward Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has made its way into a couple of prisons in Youngstown, Ohio.

Staughton and Alice Lynd, together with their Occupy Youngstown colleague, Thomas Sabatini, have been using Zinn’s book as their text in the Honors Class at Trumbull Correctional Institution. (The books were donated by the Zinn Education Project.)

Staughton was coordinator of Mississippi Freedom Schools in 1964. He and Alice have adopted a practice of awarding certificates of completion (based solely on regular attendance) that they learned at a labor school in Mexico. Alice grouped the students in clusters of two. In every cluster, each class member presented the certificate to the other together with words of appreciation for what the other had contributed to the class.

In a letter to members of the class that accompanied return of their papers on American history, Staughton said:

Why am I returning your papers with the same covering letter to everyone? It dawned on me that I HATE comparing people. I am not willing to say to A, “Your work is better than B’s.” How do I know? And what difference does it make?

We have been laboring all this winter and spring to form a group, to become a community. What I have tried to set out here is our collective effort, our group product.

The question presented before you did this writing was, “What is American history, anyway? If you had to describe it to a younger relative, what would you say?”

Here is what you said, lightly edited.

Student Responses

We are the spawn of parents of particular colors, born in the land of caste.

Our distant or recent relatives traversed a vast ocean to arrive here. Some of them came in search of something better. Some of them came as slaves.

Many of us are criminals. We have used coercion, corruption, and exploitation in our pursuit of happiness. We look for a better world. Some consider us to be visionaries.

Though we see the nature of our wrongs, our greatest folly is to dismiss them as simply “the way things are.”

We will succeed.

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Growing up my view of American history has been one of pride. I held this country’s legacy in reverence, believing we always rise above oppression and ultimately set the stage for the rest of the world in hopes that they’ll follow our lead.

Only now I understand and acknowledge the atrocities committed on our behalf within our relatively short history. Hatred, greed, and fear were, and still are, the catalysts that fuel wars and the struggle for power.

That’s not to say that love, solidarity, and peace don’t play a role in shaping our country as well. As Albert Camus said, “In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”

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Well before my time, it was all about gold, and today it’s all about oil and control. Many soldiers then and many soldiers now have made the ultimate sacrifice to gain this self-absorbed country’s main objective: money.

The United States was built on savagery, force and deception. This method continues to saturate the United States. The modern form of the United States method derives from the initial construction of this country.

Nothing in this country has changed. This country has formatted credentials and law to fit the continuation of this country’s structure.

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I am uncertain what America means to me. Like many Americans, and some of my classmates in particular, I tend to be distracted and confused by the conflicting agendas of those who have power from one period to the next. But when I look at the nation as consisting of individuals, I am convinced that America represents the ideas of justice and self-determination.

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If I were to sum up my view of the history of the United States from 1485 to the present in one word, I would say exploitation. I say 1485 because it had to take time to plan the voyage and I believe exploitation was in the plans from the beginning.

The Native Americans were exploited for their land, the blacks from Africa for slave labor, and the lower class exploited for the selfish purposes of the regimes in power. It all comes back to the Almighty Dollar. The People’s Republic of America is not above exploiting children and/or adults in third world countries if it would mean more dollars and greater profit margins.

In the 2000s jobs are all outsourced overseas.

A second word I would use to describe the history of the United States is propaganda. We never hear the whole story.

It is hard to say which branch of government is most corrupt overall. I would say the judicial branch, seeing as how I am in prison for a crime of which I was acquitted. The judge decided to change the verdict one month later.

I believe the U.S. is so conservative because of greed. Socialism doesn’t exist in the U.S., although Obama is trying, because our leaders all have money. Capitalism allows them to have more than the other guy. With socialism, theoretically, every one is equal and gets the same size “piece of the pie.” What king wants to be a peasant? It is also believed that capitalism breeds motivation. What reason do I have to work harder or do more than the next person when the junior high drop-out who can’t spell his name will get the same weekly stipend that I get?

We tell other countries how to live because we have a sense of superiority. Racism exists because of the ingrained but faulty belief that one race is superior to another. It all comes back to feelings of superiority and narcissism.

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The United States has always found ways to cover up wrongdoings. Like when we are overseas in other countries and make it seem that it was to help them, and we end up coming back with a new location for oil supply and things like that. Or things like judges and prosecutors letting their friends off the hook. And most of the time their friends are politicians who need help covering up something.

Therefore Americans who are for the right things when they go to other countries may be judged or framed before they can prove otherwise, because our ancestors or corrupt peers make us appear that way. Because we had a hand in helping end some slavery, but on the other hand, we also played a part in senseless mass killings or executions, and even in taking land way back when.

But I must say that even though there are still well-hidden evil motives, there is more good coming out of America. That is due to noble, persistent activists.

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Racism seems to have always been there, and never seem to go away. Even in literature its longevity suggests that it is a force that simply cannot be stopped. To the contrary, it has been suggested that Othello’s soliloquy in Act IV, Scene II stands as evidence that the power and passion of Othello’s heartfelt anguish and regret suggest that man is still inherently good. The statement was made that if something this beautiful can come out of Western culture, then there must be hope.

This is a watered-down, Hollywoodish interpretation of what Shakespeare is really saying through this prophetical play.

America to me is more a question than an answer. The question is the one already asked by the great Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

American history like all history has “lighted fools their way to dusty death,” as Shakespeare so eloquently says. And because this history is not just the story of our past but ultimately the story of tomorrow (which after all is a dream deferred), then perhaps Shakespeare does give us the most accurate definition, when he describes tomorrow as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
[The poem below is by the same author, several weeks later.]

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Beneath the Surface

I never understood how people could blend
two fundamentally beautiful ingredients
like black and white
and come up with the grotesque recipe
of racism and slavery.
Out of these same two ingredients
Came something as brilliant as the first TV,
something as delicious as the oreo cookie,
something as fulfilling as coffee with cream.

They say we need a rainbow coalition
but constantly look to the sky
and when a rainbow appears they smile and point,
loudly proclaiming what a beautiful, brilliant blend
of color, all the different colors working together
to form a single shape. Then they go back to their
lives, feeding each other their traditional specialties,
endless bowls of discrimination, envy, and hate.

Oh when will they recognize
the beauty of a rainbow
doesn’t just lie in its colors, but in where it comes from,
a product of two very different elements
mixing, melting, meshing into a miraculous masterpiece.

Our view of one another must go deeper than the skin.
We must understand that we too come from somewhere,
which makes us the same.
Let us strip down to the bare essentials – skin, bones and a heart
that pumps more than blood.
Let us lay still in the scorching sun that makes my skin darker
and yours lighter, just lay there in our indignities and prejudices
while it does its work
burning what needs to be burned and melting what needs melted.
Let’s remain long enough in the rain, fully clothed in the empty
traditions of our fathers, as it drowns what needs to be drowned
and washes what needs washed.

That day is coming
when we no longer need to look to the sky,
but can look within ourselves, far beneath the surface
where there in no black and white, but that sweet, blended
product of sun and rain, an iridescent power
to bridge gaps, connect corners, create coalitions,
and finally recognize the rainbow that we already are,
too bright and too beautiful
to remain hidden.

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[By a different author.]

America, “the land of the free” . . . Unto me America is as much a slave as her many held captives. For she (America) is held in bondage; a slave to the very blood shed that forged her boundaries . . . for without the anointment of blood by her oppressors, upon her face . . . after being continuously raped and abused . . . one must ask, who would she be, what would she be or would you and I even know of her?

That being said, America is lost. And the only way she can be found is by the utmost acknowledgment of the Unforgiving Truth.

This by the collective community whole that has given her life in the first place.

As for you and I, we must come to know for certain that America resides in us all. And before she can be found . . . again one must acknowledge the unforgiving truth within and abroad.

So ask yourself: where lies your truth?
Are you free? Because America isn’t . . . .

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America is a nation born of subjugation, predation, exploitation, deceit, manipulation and genocide. In every defining moment in this country’s infancy, we can cite countless examples of these acts of savagery and immorality toward other human beings . . . predominantly peaceful human beings at that. From its inception, this nation has engaged in consecutive acts of strategic, calculated, brilliant savagery in order to advance whatever agenda occupied the attention of the U.S. at that time.

As decades progressed and our nation began to value the thin cloak or surface appearance of civility, deceit became the weapon of choice when dealing with the masses. American government is simply a machine used to maintain the interests of the wealthy populace at the expense of the lower classes. This is the American way, and has been since the Founding Fathers of this nation conceived a plot to seize their own destinies and solidify their fortunes under the pretense of virtue.

It was simply a matter of money. They were tired of being heavily taxed by the King and made the decision to create their own country . . . where they were the ones being paid taxes! It was a business decision painted in political colors to appease the naïve masse and deceive them into believing this would be the land of the free. How could it ever be something so idealistic after it has already been tainted with the blood of all the victims who were mercilessly slaughtered in order to seize this land?

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Man seeks through rationalization to justify the morality of actions. Why wouldn’t an already corrupt, immoral agent continue down his path of deceit? The history books are written through the perspective of the winners. Thus an underground system of knowledge is the only way to properly convey micro-perspectives of the ones affected. It is within my experience that with a good moral compass, questioning what we accept as general truth allows us to invest ourselves in matters of the world, and causes a better clarity of our roots and understanding of our society.

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From what I read and comprehend in Chapter 9, and from the ideas of W.E.B. DuBois, I do believe that because of the growth of American capitalism, before and after the Civil War, whites as well as blacks were in a sense becoming slaves. It is a fact that blacks and whites were working for slave wages. Those with power and riches would continue to rule.

To me, U.S. history is about all the struggles, wars, broken family ties. Then the unity it took to deliver others out of slavery. It’s also about the growth of the most powerful country in the world. It took me a long time to understand what “the land of the free and the home of the brave” really meant.

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If we were actually to learn from history we would live in a utopian society, full of peace, love, abundance, brotherhood, freedom, and comfort. Instead we live in a time of war, hate, starvation, division, imprisonment, and ever increasing discomfort and disease.

We still haven’t learned how to stop killing each other. The only thing we have learned is how to kill each other more efficiently.

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Nothing has changed. I see today’s world mainly concerned with greed and avarice.

The inhumanity that men foster will be with us till eternity. I am pessimistic, having seen and endured it in many different forms during my life. My reading of Chapter 3 most assertively supports my view. I do not see a truly rainbow melting of human beings. It never was and never will be.

And I do not necessarily see my view as a bad thing. Just as the animal kingdom has prey and predators, so does mankind. I’ve tried to see it differently but just am stuck with this view.

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In my own perspective the United States of Sodom and Gomorrah has far exceeded the expectation of destroying its own children and its people from within, by making sure they live without:
Without simple things like food and drink
Without nurturing things like a father
Without entities that encourage
Without role models who help them build good character
Without camaraderie of family or loved ones or friends that are good people
Without unblemished skin from weapon or whip or war
The United States eats its babies by throwing them into unpredictable situations for a purpose unbeknown to us. The method of its madness is only to be discovered decades later.

There is never really Peace, there is only a quiet time to prepare for the next conquest through war.

Yet we are always at war, secretly, privately, civilly. This is our thirst to be liberated at the expense of others. But what is the price? When will there ever be enough? What is the true value of our gold reserves, our currency, that it outweighs the value of human life?

Why not this way or that way?

Because the time called for that way, that one way that sets up economical demand through a politically powered Empire.

I am the United States, the nation you wanted, a symbol, a legal unity. I am what I say I am, if I wasn’t then why would I say I am? (Liar!) I’ll never change, at least not too quickly. I am a slow-burning house, that burns without signs of smoke or ash but I burn just the same. Using men, stone, rebellions, war and the Revolutions from all over the world as fuel.

I am the most effective system known to Mankind. Other nations attempt to copy and duplicate me. And those that cannot, well, they support me because they cannot stand against me.

They have tried before this day, those were the days of One World! Dreams of freedom and opportunity sparked in the hearts of immigrant and slave alike.
Dreams sparked unlikely associations, bonds and unions through common goals, a common enemy and conflict.

Black slaves joined indentured servants. Indians, native to the land, gave refuge to both when found wandering in the wilderness. A strong hand to hold for a time, but only for a time.

This one way falls in time, everything comes under my grasp in due time. And everything happens for a reason, a grand design. And I am merely playing my role as an actor may simply play his, on stage in a production written and produced by The Man Upstairs! There is a consensus of popular support for my Rule.

For if you are not privy to have knowledge, wealth, and support, you cannot, by any means, disrupt my hand as I write your history, right before your eyes.