“A People’s History of the U.S.” A Reflection by: Michael Palmer

2011 was a year of good reading, but the most important book I read was “A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present” By: Howard Zinn.  About the time I was planning to write a review for this book, my good friend Michael Palmer, who also read it, beat me to reflecting on it.  As I read his reflection, I realized that he was saying exactly what I wanted to say, but in a better and more graceful way than I could have.

That being said, I asked him if I could feature his blog post here on my site, and he kindly obliged.  Michael Palmer is a great writer and thinker.  Well read, humble, and wise,  you can check out his insights here at michaelpalmer.wordpress.com

Without further ado, here is his great reflection on a book every American should read:

It’s 6 am and I’m sitting with my coffee in a quiet house. My daughter fell back asleep, and my wife is finally getting to sleep some (jet lag is brutal on 4 month old babies…and even worse on a 4 month old’s mommy and daddy), and so, in the stillness, I wanted to take a moment and reflect back on the best book of the past year.

Note: This won’t be a proper book review because I’ve already written one. Check the review out, here.

I suppose I need to start with the fact that, honestly, I’m actually not sure it’s the best book I read this year, but it certainly is the most important book I read this year.  Hearing other people talk about this book, I always thought it should be placed right next to Mein Kampf on the books that every good American should never read. I’m not exactly sure why I walked into the “Half Price Books” in K.C. to pick up a copy, but I know the moment I started reading Zinn’s book, I realized there was nothing unpatriotic about the book. In reality, it was the most patriotic book I’ve read in a long time.

There’s a sense in America that it’s only gotten bad in the last 20 years.

I’m a white, middle-class, American. I’ve known nothing of racism. I’ve never been employed by a corporation that blatantly disregards my rights, health and well-being. I can vote, even though I own no property.

My life is good.

So, I assume that everyone else’ s life should be good, too.

But, my reality hasn’t been, and currently isn’t the truth for everyone.

The brilliance of the book is it brings, into the light, the good and the bad our country has been part of. It brings into the open unknown stories about the presidents, the other side of the labor movements, and the fight for equal rights among minorities and women.

Zinn’s words brought me into the struggle.  This wasn’t a collection of dusty, old words. As I read this, I became witness to major American events.

I witnessed the coming of an Italian explorer, and how that forever changed the course of Cuba and her people.

I witnessed over 300 broken treaties between native Americans and the U.S. government.

I witnessed a 6’5″ president who fought to hold a country together, even when that same country was accusing him of attempting a corrupt, military-led takeover.

I witnessed New York children’s labor strikes over working conditions and pay. And witnessed as these strikes eventually helped lead to the formation of child-labor laws.

I witnessed Southern racism. I watched peaceful sit-ins, and marches. I witnessed race riots and police brutality. I witnessed a man willing to fight with love, and eventually lose his life for it.

I witnessed how presidents show their power, and when this happens, how smaller countries nearly always lose.

It’s true, history can be boring. It can be dry. “A People’s History”, though, reads more like a narrative. It’s the narrative of the people of our great country. It’s the story not often told. It’s a story that needs to be told.

For me, history always comes down to one thing: truth. People need to know the truth about where their country has been. This is the only way for countries to not find themselves in a cycle of death, destruction and human rights infringement.

In my original review, I wrote:

The role of  history is to educate the coming generations as to what has happened, in order that we might move forward and never repeat our mistakes. This was something that was deeply impressed on me during my time in Switzerland. During a trip,  a few friends and I went to the Dachau Concentration Camp. While there, I learned that every German student is mandated to visit a concentration camp during their school years. They are shown the horrors of their country’s history, and because they see first hand the horrors of their past, they know how to avoid such evil again. History is the greatest of teachers. But history can only teach us if we’ll listen.

History can only teach us if we’ll listen. In 2011, I was forever challenged to listen. Will you?

If you’re putting together your 2012 reading list then I challenge you to put this on your list. You won’t be disappointed.


Michael Palmer spent a year & a half teaching English with his wife in South Korea before recently moving back to the States with their new daughter to take a pastoral position in St. Louis.  There they plan to start missional communities around St. Louis focused on being God’s beacons of hope, love, and justice.  Visit him at his blog here.

2 thoughts on ““A People’s History of the U.S.” A Reflection by: Michael Palmer

  1. A good suggestion. But sometimes is difficult to get through such intense reading… for someone who has another mother language, and I don’t think has being translated into Italian…
    But we do have good similar examples into Italian literature, actually (just to name some: Pavese, Calvino, Moravia , Rigoni, Fenoglio…) I guess that “war” is one of the most passionate themes of literature of all the ages. We had some reading specifically at school during the ’70-80… and my both sons still have chance to get into the brutality more of the actual happening around the word.
    I guess humans will never learn…
    Let’s hope for a better 2012, serenity :-)claudine

    • Thank you for your thoughts! You’re right about the lack of translations. I’ve done some searches for an Italian translation and came up empty handed. Yes, let’s hope for a better 2012!

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