10 People that History Whitewashed

Last month I handed off the mic and pointed to several articles, videos, podcasts, etc that better handled the topic of racism than I was prepared or qualified to. I would love to do that again, but honestly I can’t afford to pay guest posters and asking someone to donate their skills during a time when they are bombarded with requests for emotional labor to explain this or that seemed like a jerk move. So we’re back to me. And while I’m not qualified to talk about the ins and outs of daily racism experience, I am entirely capable of research and editorializing.

I have screamed for years that Jesus wasn’t White. No matter how movies, paintings, sculptures, statues, or any other art media portray him. He was whitewashed starting around the time of the Italian Renaissance (a weird thing, to me, since at the time Italians themselves weren’t actually considered “White” by most of Europe).

Anyway, when I start that conversation people are often taken aback and then transition into “Oh…I guess you’re right.”

I’m fun at parties. Also, this is where a sarcasm font would absolutely come in handy.

It’s doesn’t stop with Jesus, though. There are a plethora of historical figures who have been whitewashed in one way or another (or, as the case with one figure on my list, erased from the narrative completely).

In writing it is all too easy to fall into a “white normative” mindset. If you only describe someone’s features, ethnicity, etc when they are not White, you’re essentially saying that everyone else is by default. And just for the record, while “White/Caucasian” is the majority in the U.S., Canada, and several European nations, worldwide it’s not even top three. So a white normative dystopian future tale is saying something about who the author expects to survive. Be mindful of that as you write.

Because white normative narratives affect more than literature. In history, unless we are specifically told someone isn’t White, it’s basically assumed that they are. You know why Alexander Hamilton being mixed race shocked a lot of people? Because they don’t mention his race in history books and he’s light skinned in all his paintings, so the dude must have been White, right? *Annoying buzzer sound* Wrong. We’re (United States education, both public and private, I can’t speak for anyone else) just accustomed to a White Normative History Perspective. A Whitewashed history.

What else are we missing? A lot, actually. But I’m limiting myself to ten because that’s my series. “10 Things on the 10th” not “A lot of things on the 10th”. So here are 10 famous figures who have been whitewashed or erased by our culture (in no particular order, be it chronological or importance).

  1. J. Edgar Hoover. He was part Jewish, yes. He was also (credibly) rumored to be Gay (though, some believe he was more Ace than anything). But the man who went hard against leaders of the Civil Rights Movement was also part Black. He was light skinned and began passing very early in life, and his family went to great lengths to hide that part of their heritage. But DNA analysis, genealogical research, and familial accounts all back up the claim that he was, in fact, part Black himself. There are also several accounts of people who openly questioned this while he was still alive who were immediately threatened by the man himself. It was a secret he guarded more closely than the nature of his romantic life.
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  2. Alexandre Dumas. He wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers among many others. His father was a general in the French Army, well decorated, well respected and well recorded in paintings. Alexandre’s grandmother was a slave in what is now Haiti. His father was a dark-skinned biracial man, something made very clear in artistic depictions of him. Alexandre was lighter skinned than his father, but still pretty clearly mixed race. Now go back and read The Count of Monte Cristo, the story of a man who is wrongly accused of a crime and imprisoned for years, who eventually gains his freedom and fortune and returns (pretending to be an Italian Count) to seek revenge on those who purposely framed him. Do you picture it differently now?
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  3. St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was born Northern Africa to a pagan father (who converted to Christianity before his death) and a Christian mother. His household primarily spoke Latin as a way to evidence their education in Roman society. However, genetically, his family were Berbers–a people group historically and genetically tied to Northern Africa. Yep. One of the most important and celebrated figures in post Biblical Christian history was Black. Even early artistic depictions of him by the church show him as a dark skinned man.
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  4. Saint Nicholas. Yes, I’m bring Santa Claus into the fray. Saint Nicholas was of southern Greek decent, Turkish, and not especially light skinned given the early artistic renderings of him by the church. Santa Claus wasn’t a White guy. White beard is totally probable, though.
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  5. Ludwig Van Beethoven. This one has been debated, but science is on my side. While the first examinations were ruled inconclusive because his hair didn’t have the “most common” characteristics of genetically African hair (do not get me started on everything wrong with that statement), follow up DNA analysis and a facial mold created from his remains and modern technology say everyone’s favorite deaf musical genius was Black. And also didn’t look ANYTHING like the majority of his artistic renderings. This was not uncommon for his day and time, and it was even more so for Beethoven who was rumored to use copious amounts of white facial powder and even employ body doubles for portraits to hide his true visage.
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  6. Queen Charlotte. Wife of King George III (yes, the crazy dude from Hamilton). Charlotte came from a small German ducal family, but on her father’s side she was descended from Portuguese royalty. More specifically, she was descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, from the Black branch of the Portuguese Royal Family Tree. Remember when I said it was not uncommon for people to look nothing like their artistic renderings in Beethoven’s day? It was true for Charlotte too. In fact, when some court painters depicted her a little more realistically, they were fired and threatened with death. Her contemporaries’ written accounts of her discuss her dark skin (as compared to most White Europeans) and features, though, so her correct visage hasn’t been lost to history.
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  7. Pete Wentz. Most identifiable member of Fall Out Boy. His grandfather was a Black Jamaican man who is also a cousin of Colin Powell. Pete has never hidden his heritage, and has stated proudly that he is mixed race. However, with white skin and the last name Wentz, people have actually called him a liar regarding his ethnicity before, leading the musician to to essentially throw his hands in the air over it. If you’re wondering, I’m including him on this list to show that this is STILL HAPPENING.
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  8. Saint George. The patron saint of England whose flag was co-opted by Crusaders and a modern English political party. George was Turkish and Persian. He was Middle Eastern. By modern definitions, not a White guy. Something I’m almost certain is lost on the particular English political party using his personal emblem.
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  9. Alessandro de Medici. Financial gurus, power players, political powerhouse, Head of the Catholic church in their pocket, feared and revered in Florence, and an integral part of Italian history. That Medici family. Alessandro was raised as the son of Lorenzo II (son of Lorenzo the Magnficent) de Medici, but was, in actuality, the son of Lorenzo I’s nephew Giulio and a Black servant in the Medici household. Giulio was only seventeen when he fathered Alessandro, but would become Pope Clement VII by the time Alessandro reached his adolescence. His mother was married off to a lesser noble and Alessandro was accepted as a legitimate Medici because the last thing you want to do is lose your cousin the Papal throne and relinquish all the power (and blackmail ability) that goes with raising his son for him on the sly. Thanks to his birth father, Alessandro would eventually become the Florentine Head of State. Possibly (I say only possibly because I don’t know who else history has whitewashed) the first Black Head of State in Europe.
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  10. Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The Godmother of Rock and Roll. A Bisexual, guitar playing, boundary pushing, musical powerhouse who literally created rock and roll by fusing Delta Blues and New Orleans Jazz with her Gospel music. And yes, she was simultaneously bisexual and a worldwide Gospel sensation. When White artists began to copy her style and even get credit for it, she didn’t have much recourse. So she traveled to Europe and toured there for decades, creating a new following and performing to large crowds until just three years before her death in the 1970s. Still, even many music enthusiasts have never heard of her because her name gets buried under names like Elvis Presley who very much used her as inspiration.
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Do you have someone to add to the list? Tell me about them in the comments. I’m a history nerd who would actually be very interested.