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Zinn’s “Or Does It Explode?” Essay Example

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Essay

In Howard Zinn’s text “Or Does it Explode?” he examines the Civil Rights movement and the newfound emancipatory politics of African-Americans not as a sudden reaction to a state of affairs, but rather in terms of the inevitable culmination of a historical process, whereby the systematic exclusion and exploitation of African-Americans by the United States government resulted in an attempt to change this paradigm. In particular, Zinn focuses on the concept of memory. For Zinn, this entails the legacy of systematic racism that grounds American politics. Accordingly, although the Civil Rights movement emerged at a specific historical time period, the appearance of this movement was inevitable to the extent that it was founded on the memory and understanding of the systematic nature of American racism.

Zinn’s thesis is essentially founded on the following notion: that even though the African-American resistance to systematic racism in the form of a Civil Rights movement, galvanized by figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, eventually erupted in a specific time period, this does not mean that such resistance was not present in the African-American community. A key example of this thesis is therefore for Zinn the notion that such resistance occupied a central role in the African-American arts: from poetry to music. The title of Zinn’s essay is itself a reference to a poem from the legendary African-American poet Langston Hughes: how does a more lucid and explicit form of resistance emerge, or, in Hughes’ term, does it “suddenly explode?” What Zinn is claiming in his essay is that this resistance existed throughout American history, in more implicit and explicit forms. The task of the historian is thus not to simplify history and therefore state that, for example, that the Civil Rights movement began at a certain date with a certain act: the sophisticated historian will instead seek to understand and grasp the constant undercurrent of resistance to the system, which became explicitly manifest at a given time period.

At the same time, this hypothesis of Zinn’s does not in any way discount the importance of the Civil Rights movement. The visible mobilization of African-Americans against systematic oppression was rather an explicit manifestation of a world-view that had already existed in the black consciousness, although in different forms. Once again, in this idea lies the importance Zinn confers to the arts in African-American history, a movement which was not only concerned with art itself, but also possessed a broader social message. To understand that the Civil Rights movement was a culmination of such attitudes is to understand that, on the one hand, African-Americans continually opposed their oppression by American government, and, on the other hand, that this opposition was the result of the African-Americans’ firm understanding of the inequality that characterized their historical life in the United States.

What arguably makes Zinn’s account even more compelling, however, is the notion that African-Americans should not view the gains of the Civil Rights movement as an absolute victory, which marked the end of systematic racism and marginalization of minorities in American politics. Instead, in light of Zinn’s thesis, perhaps the following analogy is appropriate: to say that racism ended with the victory of the North in the Civil War would completely overlook the racism that endured after this victory, demonstrated in the racist policy, for example, of the Southern States. Zinn’s essay, in this sense, is not only an attempt to understand how African-American resistance to systematic racism was present in the African-American consciousness before the Civil Rights movement, but that this resistance is still a crucial part of African-American identity today. Namely, the politically engaged leaders of the African-American movement understand that forms of oppression still exist today: the ethical as well as political obligation of the African-American community is to continue to fight against this oppression, since this was the same path carried out by the African-American community in the history of the United States.

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