An Arkansas lawmaker wants to ban all books written by deceased historian Howard Zinn, author of the national bestseller A People’s History of the United States.
Republican state legislator Kim Hendren says Zinn’s ideas have no place in schools. On March 2, he introduced a bill to make it illegal for any Arkansas public school to include books by the controversial historian in curricula, or to provide his writings as course materials.
Zinn, who died in 2010, wrote about American history from the perspective of the voiceless—women, African Americans, factory workers, Native Americans. His book was nominated for a National Book Award, and he sold 2 million copies throughout his life. When he died, his book spent 13 weeks on the New York Times paperback nonfiction list.
His works, taught in schools across the country, shaped the thinking of a generation of American students—so much so that his readings don’t seem radical at all today. But Zinn’s approach was controversial: For conservatives he was someone who defamed historical figures, and for intellectuals he was a drastic revisionist whose historical rigor was not up to snuff.
A typical passage in A People’s History of the United States shows oppressed people as pawns, and questions the motives of the ruling class:
We have here a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. This was not purely deception; it involved, in part, a genuine recognition of lower-class grievances, which helps to account for its effectiveness as a tactic over the centuries.
Hendren isn’t the first to take issue with Zinn’s place in schools. In 2013, the Associated Press revealed emails from former governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels saying he wanted to ban Zinn’s works in schools. In 2009 residents of Stafford, Virginia asked a local high school to remove Zinn’s bestseller from classes. They called the popular 1980 book “un-American, leftist propaganda.”
But Hendren’s attempt to ban all books ever written by Zinn is a far more dramatic step. “To my knowledge this is the very first time, at a state-wide legislative level, someone has targeted a single author,” says James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s office of intellectual freedom (OIF). The OIF tracks challenges to books in the US; people usually challenge specific books for specific reasons, not an author’s whole body of work.
“Arkansans have the ability to accept the good and reject the bad,” the Arkansas Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee says in a statement condemning the bill. It adds, “House Bill 1834 strips Arkansans of these rights and from the exercising their own best judgement.”
In 2015 Hendren also proposed that cursive be mandatory in elementary schools. That proposal is now the law. We’ve reached out to Hendren and will update here with any comment.
This post has been updated.