The idea behind Black History Month is that people can only begin to overcome the past by acknowledging it. The same idea would apply with at least as much force to a White History Month.
As long as you believe you are white, there is no hope for you.
— James Baldwin
At 4:44 am on July 30th, 1864, Confederate sentries guarding a rebel stronghold just east of Petersburg, Virginia heard an awful, subterranean roar, followed in quick succession by a tremor underfoot that seemed to last, soldiers would say later, for somewhere between a minute and a millenium. No sooner had the convulsions ceased than the ground below began to bulge and heave as though it were a woman’s belly pregnant with menace, before erupting in a primeval, volcanic rage, spitting flames as red and glowing as molten lava nearly 100 feet into the night sky.
The explosion ripped a hole through the meadow, littering the hillside with rock, metal, tree bark, fugitive limbs and dislodged dirt that returned to earth as misshapen graves, underneath which lay some 278 fatally injured Confederates. Curiously, however, it took a full 10 minutes following the explosion for the first Union soldiers to surface from the pit– which was, by most accounts, 30-feet deep in some sections, and almost as wide as a football field–giving the rebels time to regroup.
When finally the Union infantrymen did surface, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac had planned to break a month-long impasse by digging a 510-foot mine shaft underneath the Confederate citadel, packing it with 8,000 pounds of dynamite and detonating it. While the secessionists were still disoriented–the explosion was the largest man-made blast in history up to that point–the Union would send in the United States Colored Troops who had trained specifically for this maneuver. But on the eve of battle, General George Meade, grew increasingly skeptical that the Colored Troops were up to the task, and forbade them from leading the siege, according to the historian Richard Slotkin. As fate would have it, a drunken imbecile named Brigadier General James H. Ledlie drew the assignment instead.
Failing to even brief his men on the change in plans, Ledlie chose the most inopportune time to go on a bender, leaving his rudderless, combat-weary unit to charge through the crater rather than around it, as the black troops had been trained. A New Hampshire soldier who was blinded in the battle would later describe the bottleneck s a “mass of worms crawling over each other.”
In a desperate attempt to ward off catastrophe, Burnside finally ordered the Colored Troops to attack. Improvising a two-columned “pincer” attack, the black soldiers advanced on the rebels from either side of the pit, fighting with such ferocity that they invigorated the white infantrymen who’d been cowering in fear only seconds earlier. With white and black soldiers fighting valiantly together, the tide shifted; Union troops captured 150 Southern prisoners and a clutch of battle flags and it appeared, for a moment, that they just might pull off a comeback. Officers from both sides would later testify that the colored troops were the mainstay of the Union’s surge. Wrote one Confederate private: “They fought like bulldogs and died like soldiers.”
But Meade and Ledlie’s bungling ultimately proved to be insurmountable, and after nearly four hours of withering crossfire, the white flag materialized and the call went up: “The Yanks have surrendered.”
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And then, it got ugly.
Confederate troops clambered into the hole, and, “plunged their bayonets into the colored wounded lying there,” one soldier would recall. And then, in a savage demonstration of racial solidarity, scores of white Bluecoats joined forces with the white confederates, and turned their bayonets, knives and sidearms on the colored troops.
When all was said and done, 4,000 federal soldiers lay dead, including an estimated 200 black soldiers murdered after they had surrendered. Predictably, white soldiers and Northern newspapers blamed the defeat on the black soldiers and the naive commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln.
Had enough black history for a year? How about some white history?
With another Black History Month over and done with, this is as good an opportunity as any to revisit the question of who, exactly, needs to know more about their history.
Perhaps what this nation really needs to move forward is a White History Month.
Let me explain:
The idea behind Black History Month is that people can only begin to overcome the past by acknowledging it. Said the famed historian John Henrik Clarke:
History is . . . a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. History tells a people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are. Most important, history tells a people where they still must go, what they still must be. The relationship of history to the people is the same as the relationship of a mother to her child.”
If that is so, wouldn’t white Americans also benefit from the umbilical cord of history?
The argument most commonly offered against White History Month is that every month is white history month. But not really.
Certainly, whites don’t need any more of the airbrushed narratives that depict them as saviors, or braver, smarter and even sexier than people of color. But if it’s true, as is often said, that race is a social construct, wouldn’t it be useful to interrogate who constructed it, and for what reason?
Scholars such as the transcendent Clarke were correct in their assertion that only through learning history can blacks overcome the psychic trauma of living in a society that batters us on a daily basis, with narratives and images of our inferiority, of our insignificance, and our inhumanity. But can whites ever be fully-developed humans if they continue to see themselves as a thing apart, the children of a greater God, rather than as they truly are: neither one thing or another but all things and the other, responsible for divine acts of grace, and also depraved acts of terror, rape and murder such as were evident at the Battle of the Crater?
And it should also be noted, as much victims of racism as blacks?
The late historian Philip Foner wrote:
When the president of Fulton Bags and Cotton Mills in Atlanta, with 1,400 employees, hired 20 Negro women to work in the folding department of one of the mills in 1897, the entire workforce went on strike. The company agreed to fire the black workers on one condition: the white workers would have to work overtime for free.”
This history is not intended to allow blacks or people of color to claim some moral superiority over whites, but to free us all from the Big Lie that is our jailer. Whites cannot claim their glory without owning the gory. Whites have to claim Donald Trump to claim John Brown, must acknowledge that Thomas Jefferson was the original deadbeat dad — a racist and a pedophile who did not free his own children from slavery even after death — before you can claim Viola Liuzzo.
Liuzzo was a Detroit housewife and mother of three when she saw Martin Luther King Jr. on television inviting people of conscience to support a second march for civil rights in Selma, Alabama.
She accepted King’s challenge, went home and packed. A lapsed Catholic, she’d only been there a week when, after shuttling weary marchers from Montgomery to Selma in her 1963 Oldsmobile with volunteer Leroy Moton, 19, a car full of Klansmen spied Liuzzo and her black, male passenger. The men fired into the car, striking Liuzzo twice in the head. Covered in her blood, Moton played dead, later testifying against the killers, three of whom were sentenced to 10 years in prison.
As the story goes, Liuzzo was explaining her plan to her husband, a Teamster and lieutenant of the notorious Jimmy Hoffa, and he was pleading with her not to go. Finally, as she approached the door to go, he made one last desperate pitch:
“Vi,” he said, “this is not your fight.”
As she opened the door to leave, she turned to her husband and said:
This, is everybody’s fight.”
Top Photo | George Washington, shown here in an 1853 lithograph, oversees his slaves at Mount Vernon. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”
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