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The apotheosis of whiteness

Oscar H. Blayton

When the crazed insurrectionists surged through the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to keep Donald Trump in the White House, high above them, painted on the ceiling of the Capitol’s dome, the slave-owning first president of the United States gazed down on them.

This painting is titled “The Apotheosis of Washington.” Apotheosis means “becoming a god.”

This theme of some white person becoming a god is repeated throughout the history of art in Western civilization. “The Apotheosis of Homer,” “The Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius” and “The Apotheosis of Hercules” are just a few. The concept of deification was a great tool for myth-building that exalted cultures and religions. But in all these representations of man becoming god-like, there is one common thread: They are all white.

The most famous example of a white man becoming god-like is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in Rome. While there are many figures and themes high up on that ceiling, the central figure is a white God borne by white cherubs to touch the hand of Adam to give him life and a spark of the divine.

This common thread of whiteness in the divine throughout Western history and art was not purely accidental. Europe’s art is replete with images of African generals, conquistadors, mercenaries, saints, cardinals, nobility, musicians and average Black workaday folk. But there are no images of Black people being deified. And when Europeans brought Western culture to other parts of the world, they often destroyed images of non-white gods when they found them. The histories of North and South America and Africa cannot be fully told without recounting the destruction of local religions, deeply rooted in millennia of cultural tradition, and the conversion of the Indigenous people to Christianity that focused on a white God.

It needs to be understood that it is not just religions white supremacy has sought to destroy. It seeks to destroy the cultures that gave life to those religions as well.

White European men created their god in their own image; they often attacked any narrative that contradicted that representation. Many faiths are built upon myth systems. Creation myths are a form of rational myth that reach for explanations as to how the world came to be. The almost universal portrayal of a white Adam and Eve explains the human species from a European perspective. Functional myths serve a social order in the way antebellum Southern preachers spread the gospel of a divine purpose of slavery. There are several myth systems serving various purposes, but when does a faith system become a myth system unfounded in any logic?

In 1939, Sigmund Freud shocked his readers with a book titled “Moses and Monotheism.” In this small volume, Freud posits that Moses had been a priest of the monotheistic Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, and fled Egypt after the pharaoh’s death and perpetuated monotheism through a different religion. Freud further suggested that Moses was murdered by his followers, who then, by way of a group psychological response called “reaction formation,” revered him and became irrevocably committed to the monotheistic idea he represented. If Freud’s hypothesis is correct, one can reasonably conclude that while a myth system can generate a faith system, a faith system can also generate a myth system.

One simple indication of the deification of whiteness often can be obtained by asking a white evangelical: Is God white? This question usually causes a head-exploding attempt to avoid exposing one of the most deeply held tenets of their faith.

It is not only white supremacists who subscribe to this tenet of the divinity of whiteness. It appears to this commentator that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and other seemingly self-hating Negroes fall to their knees to worship at the altar of whiteness.

As George Washington ascends to heaven beneath the dome of the U.S. Capitol, creating aspirations for many Americans, the message is clear: In America, deification is for some, heaven is for some, but others must step back.

If it is ingrained in some Americans that the spark that makes us divine only comes with whiteness, this country has a fundamental problem, deeper than many of our nation’s leaders are willing to admit. And it cannot be solved until its existence is acknowledged.

Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.