I once scoffed at white people who complained about Black History Month, who demanded white people have their own month. I’d respond that every month was White History Month, a celebration of white culture and people. I’d point out how American history, as we teach it today, centers on white heroes and heroics, seldom mentioning people of color or acknowledging the long history of white savagery and oppression. While I still think all of that is true, I’ve begun to think white people do need a month focusing on their whiteness.
Recently, a woman of color asked me, “What do you know about whiteness?” I stumbled through a response, offering some abstract thoughts about white supremacy and privilege. She was not impressed. While she could quickly articulate the black experience in America, detailing significant moments and people in the history of the black resistance to slavery, racism and discrimination, I was mostly ignorant of the other side of that story, specific moments when white people oppressed and terrorized people of color.
The history I’d been taught in school, while mentioning the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, was largely an account of white accomplishment and nobility. We were taught the first Thanksgiving rather than Wounded Knee, the Revolutionary War rather than Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the Oregon Trail rather than the Trail of Tears. Any story that cast white people in a poor light was a footnote – at best – in most history books. The racism so foundational to our nation and its history was whitewashed away, hidden in the margins and written between the lines.
Equally problematic, white history ignored or misrepresented moments and white people who were truly heroic, who spoke out and stood up against racism at nearly every point of American history. This omission allowed white people to think of slavery and Jim Crow as unfortunate but understandable; the accepted practices of a less enlightened day. While our history books reluctantly acknowledged people of color like Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., they seldom mentioned the white people who were their accomplices or allies. In so doing, our history lessons reinforced the idea that racial justice was never a white concern.
James Loewen, in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, details one such glaring example of this tendency to ignore, diminish and even demonize moments in history when white people stood up against slavery and racial discrimination. Most white people know very little of one of the most significant historic figures of the 19th century.
On October 16th, 1859, John Brown led a small group of abolitionist white men and freed slaves in seizing the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. With control of the 100,000 weapons stored at the armory, they hoped to create an army of enslaved men who would use these weapons to defend their right to freedom. While they successfully seized the armory and did arm a small group of enslaved men, the US Army under Robert E. Lee soon surrounded the armory, attacked and forced Brown and his allies to surrender. While his rebellion was unsuccessful, most historians acknowledge his raid and subsequent execution as the event that galvanized both opponents and defenders of slavery and sparked the Civil War.
In 1859, every person in America – black or white – knew of John Brown. He was loved or hated, but taken seriously by all. Today, if Brown is mentioned in history books, his heroic attempt to free millions from slavery is misrepresented and his character diminished. In 1859, luminaries like Henry Thoreau wrote admirably of his actions and principles. Union soldiers marched off to war singing “his truth was marching on.” Frederick Douglas called Brown, “one of the greatest heroes known to American fame.” Today, as Loewen details, Brown is often represented in history books as crazy. He is portrayed as fanatical, deranged, gaunt, grim and terrible. One textbook – without any support – stated, “thirteen of his near relatives were thought insane.” None reference his deep religious convictions, his articulate writings and the admiration and respect with which he was held in 1859. Indeed, in his day, Brown was considered a rational and articulate opponent to slavery.
John Brown was not crazy. He was anti racist. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that most modern white histories ignore or demonize him. Make no mistake, the equating of anti racism and insanity is intentional. Most history books imply and teach that slavery and racism were rational, defensible institutions and those who opposed them were unhinged outliers rather than moral champions.
This is why we need White History Month. The history we are taught the eleven other months is really an admiring history of white supremacy; excusing, diminishing and sustaining racial injustice. We need a month that documents the Middle Passage, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, Jim Crow, Rosewood, the Tulsa Race Riot, the MOVE bombing and countless other significant events in racial terror. That most white people know little to nothing about these events is inexcusable. You cannot understand whiteness until you understand the events that have sustained it.
The history we are taught the eleven other months does not extol resistance to racism. We need a month when white people learn about Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Willian Lloyd Garrison, Graceanna Lewis, John Brown, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Will Campbell. That most white people don’t know who they are is damning. You cannot dismantle white supremacy without examples of resistance. That most of the white heroes of our history books ignored racism, teaches our children to do the same.
As one person of color recently told me, “John Brown is so important because he was our first accomplice; someone willing to shed his own blood for our freedom.” That making such a sacrifice has been represented as crazy is racist. It allows many white people to justify their apathy and inaction, to see those who stand with Black Lives Matter as suspect. We need a month to challenge this indoctrination, when white people can focus on both the ugliness of racism and examples of white people who stood against that ugliness. We need to understand whiteness – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Next time someone advocates for White History Month, I’m going to agree with them. I’ll ask them to tell me what moments in white history they think have been ignored. What historic white people have been neglected? Since nearly every significant white moment and person has already been highlighted, I suspect they won’t have much to suggest, but I will. I’ll begin by telling them of a white man named John Brown.