You’ve probably read or heard about the controversy over a 1930s mural at San Francisco’s George Washington High School depicting the American founding as it really was—white men creating a republic that oppressed slaves, on land stolen from the natives. The 13-panel mural, created by a communist with WPA support, Victor Arnautoff, was seen as progressive revisionism, and in its day it rankled conservatives.
Now, however, the San Francisco School Board, with a majority of people of color, has flipped that critique. They plan to spend $600,000 of taxpayer money to destroy the mural.
Why on earth would they want to remove a mural that corrects a prettified founding myth? Why destroy art at all?
The answer: the mural is seen as disturbing to many students because it reinforces a longstanding narrative of blacks being beaten down by whites. Isn’t it time for a narrative of blacks as heroic and resilient?
Like a lot of white liberals, my reaction was that this is PC taken to a ludicrous extreme. If the mural is “disturbing,” it’s supposed to be; it depicts a brutal and unsavory aspect of American history that we need to understand.
Our colleague Peter Dreier wrote a particularly powerful piece articulating this view. Rather than destroying the mural, why not use it as a teachable moment, to discuss the constitutional founding, its myths and realities?
I now have a more tempered view, thanks in part to a series of conversations with my daughter, who is active in anti-racism work. She raised the following analogy. Unlike a visit to an art museum, viewing that mural is not optional. Students see it every day. Suppose, she said, it was a well-intentioned mural of the Holocaust, showing Jews being rounded up, brutalized, and taken to the gas chambers? How would Jewish kids feel?
After nearly 6,000 years, the Jewish narrative is of oppression, resistance and above all survival. But a mural that showed only the oppression would be depressing and misleading, even degrading.
I’m still opposed to destroying the mural, but the school board and my daughter have a point. So here, in the spirit of the Hebrew Bible, is a Solomonic solution. Instead of taking $600,000 to destroy the mural, spend the money commissioning an equally prominent mural depicting resilience and survival.
Maybe include Fredrick Douglass, giving his famous 1852 speech, “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?”; and Sojourner Truth escaping from slavery; and Thurgood Marshall arguing Brown v. Brown before the Supreme Court and then taking his seat on the Court.
You get the idea. Two murals: repression and resilience. Include the poets and poems of the Harlem Renaissance. Like this one, by Langston Hughes:
We are the American heartbreak —
The rock on which Freedom
Stumped its toe —
The great mistake
That Jamestown made