Books for freedom fighters
Like most students, growing up I dreaded history. I thought it was boring. I had no interest in memorizing dates for a standardized test. I was tired of learning the same narrative–that is until I discovered A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
January 27th 2015 marked the five-year anniversary of his passing. I can still remember the first time I picked up his seminal work, A People’s History. In reading Zinn, for the first time I was learning about the U.S. from a different point of view. The narrative was not from voices of landowners, bankers, and slave owners but from farmers, immigrants, Native Americans, and slaves. For the first time I learned about workers who died so we have an 8-hour workday. I analyzed for the first time the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not from the point of view of the Enola Gay but from the victims. And while the book celebrated those nameless, faceless individuals who made America more equal, it also called into question the government’s decision to use nuclear weapons in Japan and invade Vietnam. Never had I read a book of nearly 700 pages that fast. Never had I stopped to look at America from the bottom up. Zinn’s book forced me to question everything I had been taught and indeed set me on the path to learn more.
Once I started down this path, like many students, I found myself
trying to find someone to identify with in history. But to be honest, it was a struggle. Here I was, a white teen who was really sure about only one thing: that I hated racism more than anything else in the world. However, from white abolitionists to many in the Civil Rights Movement, sympathetic whites were often described as passive, in favor of a gradual approach to freedom, and many times still possessing their own prejudice. This all changed the day I opened W.E.B. Du Bois’s biography on John Brown. For the first time in my life I was reading about someone who dedicated his life to ending slavery, hated racism as much as me, and was white. I now knew I was not alone. Throughout my life, many individuals had tried to sway me from studying what I am passionate about because of my race. Brown often gave me the confidence I needed to continue on this path and certainly helped me throughout my career as a white professor teaching black history.
While A People’s History and John Brown both played a large part in my life, no single book has been more important than the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Quite frankly, I could write another book on how it changed my life. For me, it was so much more than just discovering the strong, radical, militant Malcolm X. It was learning about Malcolm, the man that taught me so much. I can still remember how I felt the first time reading about Malcolm’s ability to not only stand up for what he believed in, but his sacrifice for his people. Here was a man who slept a few hours a night, ate one meal a day, and seemed to never stop working. Reading about his life, I began to connect things internationally in a way I had never done. I started to evaluate my own life, race, and history. His book challenged, influenced, and motivated me in ways no other book ever has to this date.
I tell my students today that I wish I was their age. I wish I could go back and open the Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time. I wish I could stay up all night and read John Brown in one sitting. But now my job is to pass these works on to them so they will hopefully have the same experiences I did growing up. Now my job is to write my own books and hopefully some day someone will write that I influenced them in some positive way. That, to me, is the best way I can honor Howard Zinn, John Brown, and Malcolm X.
Vincent Intondi is an Associate Professor of History at Montgomery College and Director of Research for American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute. He also writes for the Huffington Post. His most recent book is African Americans Against the Bomb (Stanford, 2015).
The image featured at the top of this post is by Cheikh. Ra. Films.