New Selves Don’t Whitewash History
“…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life…” – Ephesians 4:22 (ESV)
I just read about Laura Spelman, John D. Rockefeller’s wife. She was the daughter of a Congregational abolitionist and married into a great Northern Baptist family. She supported The Negro Motorist Green Book, a resource that helped African Americans travel throughout the U.S. with less danger. It was a map of sorts, developed by word of mouth, to highlight safe pitstops and vacation destinations.
It’s just like a white person like me to look for white heroes in matters racial. My husband, a historian, is giving me a crash course in whitewashing history. There is what the late historian Nathan Huggins refers to as the “master narrative,” which imagines an inexorable development of free institutions and the expansion of political liberty to the broadest possible public. The master narrative—the whitewashed history—treats slavery and oppression as curious abnormalities, which the Civil War resolved or the Laura Spelmans of the world took care of. There is a sense in the master narrative of continuous progress, of a firmly upward reach in the American story.
To resist such a narrative, American’s present must be in honest conversation with America’s past. We need to wonder what the old U.S. self has to say to the new U.S. self, and what it might finally look like to “put off” the old self.
May a new self have a genuine conversation with a former self, and may our nation find its way forward in as much truth as we can bear.
Donna Schaper is Senior Minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City. Her most recent book is I Heart Frances: Letters to the Pope from an Unlikely Admirer.