If ever you visit the US capitol, stand under the dome, look directly up, and you’ll see overhead Constantino Brumidi’s fresco, The Apotheosis of Washington, painted in 1865. ‘Apotheosis’ means ‘raising of a person to the rank of a god.’
Over four thousand feet square, the panorama in the oculus of the dome depicts George Washington gloriously seated in heaven, flanked by female figures representing Liberty and Victory. Washington presides over Minerva teaching science to Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, and Samuel F.B. Morse. He observes Mercury handing a bag of money to Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution. On Earth below, a young woman who signifies Armed Freedom defeats ‘Tyranny and Kingly Power,’ according to the official guidebook, but the cringing and furtive figures are clearly Catholics and Spaniards.
The spectacle is richly and extravagantly painted. It’s about Protestantism, whiteness, white men, capitalism, and war. Or, taken together, war and capitalism arrayed under the guidance of white, Protestant capitalist men. What a heavenly host of Pulitzer prize-winning biographies are represented in those scenes: ones written, and many still to come!
Because this is the great American narrative as David McCullough, for instance— the most generously remunerated biographer-historian in publishing history— would have it. Grand stories about white men who tunnel and dig (The Path Between the Seas); build (The Great Bridge), rebel (1776); run things (Truman, John Adams, T. Roosevelt); and recently, fly (The Wright Brothers). In biography, the vein of gold for publishers and authors alike is white. Take a stroll down the ‘Biography’ aisle of your favorite bookstore. Whiteness has been essentialized as the American experience.
This keyhole view of American history and biography—projected upward onto the heavens as The Apotheosis of Washington, contributes to oppression in this country. Denying the past, failing to honor other identities, routinizes the perception of otherness. White is the default against which everyone else is other-ed.
And I believe the reason for the narrow scope of American biography is fear. In white culture, this often means suppressing or reinterpreting efforts to discuss issues of dominance, conquest, and exploitation of cultures of color. Put simply, addressing issues such as slavery is painful.
Whites, who make-up the preponderance of readers in this country, generally don’t want to hear about it. They prefer, like most people do, to hold onto beliefs and values that will make them feel good about themselves.
Regardless, it’s past time for biographers and historians to consider whiteness as a major determinate in how a person’s life unfolds. Whiteness, and white supremacy, always structures experience in America, and needs to be consciously considered as part of any social process.
Already the prideful books about white men in wigs are seeming hackneyed. In 30 years, they’ll be despised.
Charles J. Shields is the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Holt, 2006, rev. 2017).