"To live now, as human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."
Though the late historian Howard Zinn wrote those words more than a decade ago in "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times," they resonate just as deeply today, when so many Americans find themselves disillusioned at best and paralyzed at worst due to the expansive "bad" that has engulfed the lives of far too many.
Some have chosen to live out the victory Zinn speaks of. At a time when doing nothing would come easier, they have taken to the streets and pushed back.
Voices of a People's History is a Chicago arts and education project that embodies that victory. In Chicago, the project is marking its halfway point with an evening of dramatic readings and musical performances titled "The People Speak, Live!" Matt Damon will headline the sold-out evening, which will take place at the Metro on Jan. 31.
Bringing together a striking cross-section of poets, journalists and activists, the event will offer up a Chicago-centric, live take on the acclaimed History Channel documentary "The People Speak." It will draw from texts including the remembrances of early Chicago labor organizers and Stud Terkel's interview with Mamie Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till.
But the event only marks the beginning of what the "Voices" program has in store for Chicago. The Huffington Post spoke with local poet Kevin Coval, a "Voices" organizer and a co-founder of Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival, about the group's plans.
How did you and Louder Than A Bomb become involved with the Voices of a People's History project here in Chicago? What attracted you to it?
I think there's a natural connection between the work that Voices of a People's History does and the work that Young Chicago Authors and Louder Than A Bomb do. We both believe the everyday person has the ability to articulate accurately and appropriately the circumstance of their time. We don't have to rely either on the so-called victors who typically narrate history, nor do we have to rely on the academy to tell us what our stories should be, both historically and poetically. We can rely on the people we live amongst to not only narrate the time, but to also interject and creatively respond to the moment of human experience, be it through poetry or speech or song or any kind of document.
Over the summer, we talked about this partnership and since the fall we've been working together to show the film "The People Speak." The purpose is not only to show the film because it's a great film, but also to distribute educator toolkits to teachers in the area, giving them resources and curricula to inject some of these ideas from Howard Zinn's books into the classroom.
Do you recall what your initial reaction to reading Zinn's work was? How has his work influenced your own?
I was blown away. I was in high school and I was angry and had very few places to turn, very few people to talk to. I grew up in the suburbs and started to listen to hip-hop in the early '80s and knew through the music that I was being told lies in my classes. Hip-hop sent me to the library to discover progressive historians like Lerone Bennett, Jr. and Howard Zinn in those stacks. Once I read the first chapter of "A People's History of the United States," where he's documenting the journal of Columbus, I knew that not only had I found a giant spirit that was like some sort of grandfather to me, but that I was on the right path and that the messages I was getting in the music were part of this other canon that was countering the tales and narrative of the dominant class. Discovering Howard's work meant everything to me.
Howard Zinn's work has proven to be essential and has had that resonance for people for going on generations now. At this point, I think his power, his belief in the historian and in history is also akin to so much of our own spirit in this city. Howard was from the East Coast, but shares, I think, in the spirit of individuals like Studs Terkell, Timuel Black, Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair and Ida B. Wells.
Tell me more about the year-long project the event at the Metro is really capping off. How has the experience been for you, to share this film and these ideas with so many individuals over the past several months?
In a lot of ways, I think this event being sold out marks just the beginning of our work, in that I think it is a testament, well, not only to the potential star power of Matt Damon, but also to our need as a people to hear our stories reflected in public spaces. That we are doing this work at a time when people are taking to the streets because of a lack of representation and a kind of limited representation by only the wealthy is kind of synchronistic. As a people, we have this grand desire to be portrayed and reflected accurately and we are discovering that we ourselves can be the tellers and makers of history. We're seeing that in the streets right now over the last year and a half or so.
The work we're doing in the classroom and want to continue to do in the classroom is not stopping on the 31st. We want to develop a progressive teacher network of 1,000 teachers this year and introduce newer curriculum next year which continues to turn the table and gets young people to record their history with their stories.
Speaking of the work you do with Louder Than A Bomb, the documentary about the program recently made its debut on the Oprah Winfrey Network. What was it like for you to see it reach a broad audience?
We feel very fortunate because I think the stories of the young people in Louder Than A Bomb deserve a very large audience. It's great to see a Chicago story on a national stage and, of course, it's great and hilarious to see our work on this larger stage interspliced with commercials for cereal. But we've gotten a great response not only from Chicagoans, but also nationally and internationally because of the film. It's certainly a testament to the power of the work we do at Young Chicago Authors and is also a testament to the way the filmmakers Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel crafted the story and really captured the spirit of Louder Than A Bomb. Chicago has all these incredible, beautiful resources of individuals who contribute, I think, to the greatness of the city and I think Greg and Jon are a part of that mix.
Tell me, looking ahead to the Metro event, how did you and the other cast members go about choosing what you would present on stage, given the breadth of the work you are drawing from?
It's an honor, an embarrassment of riches really, because we are trying to do a 90-minute show, but it could be 9 hours. I want to do some sort of epic Greek, all-day version over the summer in a park. It's been great and also in some ways heartbreaking whittling down these beautiful texts into a 90-minute show, however I'm also really excited because the version we're going to do on the 31st is a Chicago-centric version of "The People Speak." There's going to be a lot of folks, a lot of voices from our own history that have never really appeared on a People's Speak stage before and they are really excited about it.
What can those of us lucky enough to have snagged tickets to the Metro event can expect from the cast?
I think we have a great cast that's representational not only of various sides of the city, but it's certainly very intergenerational. We have Rick Kogen and also She'Kira McKnight, one of my students at Louder Than A Bomb and one of the stars of the documentary, together. Angela Jackson is one of my heroes from the black arts movement in this city. Rami Nashashibi is one of the most important speakers and activists in Chicago to me. I think it's going to be a great night and I don't want to leave anyone out. It's going to be a bunch of barn-burners.
What's the significance of this event really launching right here, right now, when it's put into the broader political context, both nationally and locally?
I think that's the exciting thing about this time. In some ways, for the first time in my lifetime, the adage that history repeats itself is emboldening and empowering. When you're going through the archives and reading firsthand accounts of speeches made by people in this city who demanded the 8-hour work day. When you're looking through the texts of Ida B. Wells recounting and telling the world about the horrors of lynchings on the South Side -- these were individuals and then small groups of people and eventually mass movements that led to the grand change we partake in now. We are, today, in a similar historical moment so that history repeating itself, in this instance, is empowering. When we see some of the voices at the Metro reading accounts from 1893 or the '20s or the civil rights movement, we will know we have the ability as citizens, as regular people to make historic change. And this is the time to do just that.