White History 101

White History 101

Why can’t white people and black people have access to a shared history that is accurate, honest, antiracist and inclusive?


Whatever happened to James Blake? He is probably the most famous bus driver ever. And yet when he died at age 89 in March 2002, the few papers that bothered to note his passing in an obituary ran just a few hundred words of wire copy and moved on.

Given that February is Black History Month, it is worth taking a moment to ask how such a crucial figure could be so cruelly forgotten.

Blake was the Montgomery driver who told a row of black passengers: “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” Rosa Parks was one of those passengers. She made her stand and kept her seat. The rest, as they say, is history.

Well, black history anyway. We know how African-Americans boycotted city transit for thirteen months until the segregationists caved in. We know how the boycott launched the career of a previously unheard-of preacher called Martin Luther King Jr. and made Parks an icon. In schools, bookstores and on TV there is an awful lot of talk about them in February. But nary a word about Mr. Blake. That’s because so much of Black History Month takes place in the passive voice. Leaders “get assassinated,” patrons “are refused” service, women “are ejected” from public transport. So the objects of racism are many but the subjects few. In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.

There is no month when we get to talk about Blake; no opportunity to learn the fates of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, who murdered Emmett Till; no time set aside to keep track of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, whose false accusations of rape against the Scottsboro Boys sent five innocent young black men to jail.

Wouldn’t everyone–particularly white people–benefit from becoming better acquainted with these histories? What we need, in short, is a White History Month.

For some this would be one racially themed history month too many. Criticisms of Black History Month from cynics, racists and purists are about as predictable as the arrival of February itself. But for all its obvious shortcomings, Black History Month helps clear a space to relate the truth about the past so we might better understand the present and navigate the future. Setting aside twenty-eight days for African-American history is insufficient, problematic and deserves our support for the same reason that affirmative action is insufficient, problematic and deserves our support. As one means to redress an entrenched imbalance, it gives us the chance to hear narratives that have been forgotten, hidden, distorted or mislaid. Like that of Claudette Colvin, the black Montgomery teenage activist who also refused to give up her seat, nine months before Rosa Parks, but was abandoned by the local civil rights establishment because she became pregnant and came from the wrong side of town.

The very notion of black and white history is both a theoretical nonsense and a practical necessity. There is no scientific or biological basis for race. It is a construct to explain the gruesome reality that racism built. But, logic suggests, you cannot have black history without white history. Of course, the trouble is not that we do not hear enough about white history but that what masquerades as history is more akin to mythology. The contradictions of how a “free world” could be founded on genocide, or how the battle for democracy during the Second World War could coincide with Japanese internment and segregation, for example, are rarely addressed.

“I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships,” writes Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue. “The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.”

The purpose here is not to explore individual guilt–there are therapists for that–but collective responsibility. When it comes to excelling at military conflict, everyone lays claim to their national identity; people will say, “We won World War II.” By contrast, those who say “we” raped black slaves, massacred Indians or excluded Jews from higher education are hard to come by. You cannot, it appears, hold anyone responsible for what their ancestors did that was bad or the privileges they enjoy as a result. Whoever it was, it definitely wasn’t “us.” This is one more version of white flight–a dash from the inconveniences bequeathed by inequality.

So we do not need more white history, we need it better told.Settlement, slavery and segregation–propelled by economic expansion and justified by white supremacy–inform much of what the United States is today. The wealth they created helped bankroll its superpower status. The poverty they engendered persists. But white history does not mean racist history any more than black history means victim’s history. Alongside Blake, Milam and Bryant, any decent White History Month would star insurrectionist John Brown; the Vanilla Ice of the Harlem Renaissance, Carl Van Vechten; civil rights workers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the Freedom Summer of 1964; and Viola Liuzzo, murdered during the Selma to Montgomery march. It would explain why Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, why George W. Bush chose Bob Jones University to revive his presidential hopes. It would tell the story of how Ruby Bates recanted her rape accusation in a bid to save the Scottsboro boys from the noose and how the Blakes never did reconcile themselves to the event that brought them infamy. “None of that mess they said was true,” said his wife, Edna. “Everybody loved him. He was a good, true man and a churchgoer.”

It would offer white people options and role models and all of us inspiration while relieving the burden on African-Americans to recast the nation’s entire racial history in the shortest month of the year. White people, like black people, need access to a history that is accurate, honest and inclusive. Maybe then it would be easier for them, and the rest of us, to make history that is progressive, antiracist and inclusive.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy