Essay #4 Tip Sheet

Essay #4: Whitewashing History

Begin by reading:

Your writing task:

Using examples drawn from school, books, and/or television, explain why you think the history you learned is or is not whitewashed.


When I grew up in Maryland, the Civil War was our neighborhood history. The Antietam Battlefield was just up the road. I had a friend who had a large collection of Civil War bullets he just picked up in fields. When I was in college, I had a summer job at a county park which included one of the safe houses of John Singleton Mosby (nicknamed "The Gray Ghost"), a Confederate guerrilla officer. Because Maryland wasn't quite Southern (being part of the Union) nor quite Union (being south of the Mason-Dixon line), textbook publishers could not figure out what to send us, so in any given classroom about half of our textbooks referred to the "Civil War" and about half of them referred to the "War between the States" or sometimes the "War of Southern Succession." More recently, I've heard it referred to as simply the "War of 1861 – 1865." And I had to get to college (in Missouri) to read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself.

A high school kid in Maryland would never have guessed that the Civil War was an attempt to split the country over the issue of slavery, and before I read Douglass (who was, in fact, enslaved in Maryland), I had no clue about the brutality and heartbreak of slavery. Most of my mental images of slavery came from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. While it was true that Jim was a slave, Jim and Huck were friends and equals. Jim's life didn't seem so bad. Twain never shows him being beaten or whipped. We knew that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but the slave-master relationship was always presented as mutual respect and affection. No beatings.

Hints for success:

One of the basic assumptions of the Niman article and of this assignment is that some of the sugar-coated mythology you learned in elementary school or absorbed from popular culture —images such as the happy Indians sharing a turkey dinner with happy Pilgrims on Thanksgiving Day or happy slaves working the cotton fields while singing cheerful spirituals—might not be 100% accurate. This means you can't shoot from the hip on this assignment. You will need to do some digging, perhaps taking a second look at your history textbook, because your mental inventory is probably stocked with images that aren't really true.

Thanksgiving Clip Art
  1. Like many college-level writing assignments, this one is somewhat complex. It asks you to do three things (and if you do not do them all, you have not really fulfilled the assignment).
    1. Define "whitewashing of history."
    2. Argue the point that the history you learned is (or is not) whitewashed.
    3. Provide concrete examples to support your point about the history you learned.
  2. You will be tempted to do this as a bullet-point list—perhaps even to just list the items a, b, and c to match my three points above. That's not an essay yet. You need to come up with a single sentence thesis that covers the whole essay and write an introduction and conclusion to your major points.
  3. You will be tempted to write an "everything about everything" paper, but that's impossible in just five pages. All the possible whitewashing in all your history courses, beginning with ancient Egypt and working down to yesterday? You would do much better to pick one specific issue and go deeply into that. Was Robert E. Lee the the upstanding and honorable patriot who just happened to live in the South? (That's what I was told.) Did George Washington like his slaves so much that he would go out to the fields to eat lunch with them? (I was told that too.)
  4. This assignment explores a common strategy for academic writing: discussing the implications of the definition of a common term. If you look up the word "whitewash," perhaps in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, you learn that the first definition is a very cheap sort of white paint, but if you go deeper, you get a definition which fits this assignment.
  5. Read that assignment again. It says "Think of the history you learned. Is it 'whitewashed'? Using examples drawn from school, books, and/or television, explain why you think the history you learned is or is not whitewashed."
  6. Like most college writing, this one has a persuasive edge (Item 1b above). The general idea of most college writing goes beyond "list all the stuff" and proceeds to "show why the point you just made is true."
  7. This assignment asks for outside sources so you can prove your point with something more substantial than "It seems to me" and "To me this means." The assignment asks you to get into genuine evidence that goes beyond your personal feelings.
  8. One possible danger point: Beware of extremists who agree with you. Human beings and human history are rarely all good or all bad. Yes, there were many cases where the westward-expanding settlers took advantage of the Native Americans, but there were also settlements where the two groups lived together in some kind of harmony, and some tribes welcomed the newcomers for the opportunity to trade with them. And beware also of one little incident defining the whole. If George Washington's dentures were made with teeth from slaves, does that entirely define the man?

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Revised 9/12/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: