A very astute white student in Jessica Stovall’s class made the trenchant observation that he doesn’t understand why the white kids in James Sieck’s AP American History class “can’t talk about race like we can.” 

“If you can’t go into the curriculum because of your own personal feelings, then that’s not a good student to me,” he says. 

That’s one of the more memorable insights in this seventh episode, but after some moments of reflection, this argument assumes that even academic curricula are somehow free of the racist inflections of the mostly white men who helped shape them. 

William Sanders Scarborough was one of the founders of the American Philological Association and generally regarded as the first African-American classical scholar. He wrote a textbook in Ancient Greek that was used widely at the university level. He was also a former slave. 

In 1909, Scarborough was barred from attending an association meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, because the hotel where the meeting was to be held refused to serve him and had threatened to sue the association for breach of contract if it canceled. Someone else read the paper that Scarborough was due to read at the meeting. 

To this day, the overwhelming majority of undergraduate classics majors and faculty members in the classics is white. According to the Society for Classical Studies, only 2 percent of full-time classics faculty members are minorities. 

At this point, it’s been pretty well established that the study of Greek antiquity was quite literally whitewashed, as Sarah E. Bond, an assistant professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, explained in a widely referenced 2017 essay.

“Most museums and art history textbooks contain a predominantly neon white display of skin tone when it comes to classical statues and sarcophagi,” Bond writes.

Many Western statues, reliefs and sarcophagi, Bond explains, “were, in fact, painted. Marble was a precious material for Greco-Roman artisans, but it was considered a canvas, not the finished product for sculpture.”

And yet generations of high-level history students and even professors and PhDs have considered the ancients “Anglo Saxon ancestors” — evidence of how “not a few Westerners have attempted to racialize antiquity, making history into white race history and classics into a lily-white field, complete with pictures of blond ancient Greeks,” as historian Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. 

A similar whitewashing extends to the teaching of American history in schools.

For instance, a 2018 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project showed that fewer than 10 percent of American high school seniors could identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Less than one-third of them could identify the 13th Amendment as the formal end of slavery in the country, the Atlantic points out. 

If the white students in AP American History cannot competently talk about race, despite their advanced academic pedigree, then it’s because the people who create the curriculum have made it so — the social and historical context in which the curriculum was created has made it so. 

This is how whiteness lives on. Whiteness is stitched into the minds of white people and black people alike — reified as a neutral or even benevolent norm — by the disciplined, studied avoidance of its implications. 

For a black person, living with such normalcy takes a social and psychological toll. We must deal with notions of inferiority, shame, degradation and worthlessness — to name a few forces. Black people must escape the indoctrination into whiteness as a matter of survival. We must shake the myth (which means confronting it) in order to keep our “righteous mind,” as referenced in Episode 7 by Denzel Washington’s character from a scene in the film The Great Debaters. This takes constant struggle. 

For the white person, living with whiteness also takes a social and psychological toll, which most white people have been careful to make others pay. But the moral debt, accrued by centuries of plunder and domination, strains to be recognized.  

I cringed listening to the reprehensible closing arguments made by Jason Van Dyke’s lawyer (who made a mentally ill teenager out to be a ravenous beast) and statements by the police union representative in response to the guilty verdict (the rep was outraged that Van Dyke was even on trial for shooting a black kid 16 times). Whiteness has turned some white people into moral monsters. 

In Take This Hammer, a 1963 documentary about San Francisco’s race problem, James Baldwin, in the words of the writer Brandon Tensley, returns to white people the problem of “the nigger” (Baldwin, after all, must maintain his righteous mind). 

“I didn’t invent him. White people invented him,” Baldwin says. “If I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger? … Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. I’m going to give you your problem back: You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.”

To be white and not grapple with the moral consequences of your whiteness is to lose your “righteous mind.” To see some white people in this episode attempting to reclaim their righteous minds — like that student in Stovall’s class — is refreshing.  

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

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Michael Romain on 'America to Me'

Michael Romain, an education staff reporter for Wednesday Journal, will blog his reactions to each episode of 'America to Me,' the 10-part documentary series airing each Sunday on Starz. This blog will...

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