On the very first page, Zinn recounts what Christopher Columbus wrote in his log about the Arawak people he encountered upon his arrival in the New World:
“They … brought us parrots and cotton balls and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for glass beads and eagle bells. They willingly traded everything they owned … They were well built, good bodies and beautiful features… They don’t have weapons, and don’t know them, because I showed them a sword, they took it by the side and cut themselves ignorantly. They didn’t have any iron No. Their spears are made of cane… They made good servants… With fifty men we could have subdued them all, and made them do whatever we wanted.”
I have no words to describe how I felt when I read about this period in American history.
As a young Asian American growing up in a less diverse suburb of Sacramento — Carmichael, California — I was conflicted about my identity: I never felt fully American because I didn’t seem like the most in my community. Nor did I know anything about being Chinese because I was not from China.
There was nothing in my history books about the contributions of Asian Americans or the discrimination and violence directed at Asians over 100 years old. There was just nothing.
My high school US history class experience was pretty limited. As I sat in class, I listened as my teacher would assign a few chapters from a dry-written history textbook. We were instructed to answer the questions at the end of each. Most of what I read highlighted the country’s pioneers, winners, politicians, industry leaders and innovators.
It was not that these historical figures did not deserve a place in my textbooks. In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting on an airplane flying from the west coast to the east coast and marveling at the simplicity of its modes of transportation.
But as a school-age girl, it never occurred to me that the stories I learned in my history class could have other sides – tales of slaves, immigrants, prisons and the oppressed.
As Americans, we must continue to ask ourselves: In our quest to democratize this country and even dominate the world, whose sacrifices can be overlooked? How can we make sure their stories are never left behind?
When we leave out the large swath of stories from the diverse people who call our country home, we effectively erase their contributions and their struggles – and it becomes all too easy to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.