Howard Zinn was magical as a teacher. Witty, irreverent, and wise, he loved what he was teaching and clearly wanted his students to love it also. We did.
My mother, who earned $17 a week working 12-hour days as a maid, had somehow managed to buy a typewriter for me and I had learned typing in school. I said hardly a word in class (as Howie would later recall), but inspired by his warm and brilliant ability to communicate ideas and conundrums and passions of the characters and complexities of Russian life in the 19th century, I flew back to my room after class and wrote my response to what I was learning about these writers and their stories that I adored. He was proud of my paper, and, in his enthusiastic fashion, waved it about. I learned later there were those among other professors at the school who thought that I could not possibly have written it. His rejoinder: “Why, there’s nobody else in Atlanta who could have written it!”
It would be hard not to love anyone who stood in one’s corner like this.
Under the direction of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) many students at Spelman joined the effort to desegregate Atlanta. Naturally, I joined this movement. Howie, taller than most of us, was constantly in our midst, and usually somewhere in front. Because I was at Spelman on scholarship, a scholarship that would be revoked if I were jailed, my participation caused me a good bit of anxiety. Still, knowing that Howard and others of our professors—the amazingly courageous and generous Staughton Lynd, for instance, my other history teacher—supported the students in our struggle, made it possible to carry on.
Feminism/womanism never seemed odd to Howard Zinn, who encouraged his Spelman students, all of them women, to name and challenge oppression of any sort.
I was Howard’s student for only a semester, but in fact, I have learned from him all my life. His way with resistance—steady, persistent, impersonal, often with humor—is a teaching I cherish.
Alice Walker is an author, poet, self-claimed womanist, and activist. She wrote the critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple (1982) for which she won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Visit her website at: www.alicewalkersgarden.com.
This story was excerpted from a fuller essay by Alice Walker, “Saying goodbye to my friend Howard Zinn,” published in the Boston Globe on January 31, 2010.
Howard Zinn taught at Spelman College and Boston University where he had an extraordinary influence on his students’ understanding of history and their role in the world. This series highlights Zinn’s lasting impact as a professor. Read more stories and submit your own.