In the halls of San Francisco’s George Washington High School, 13 frescoes of George Washington reside. The mural and its panels are called “The Life of Washington,” and was painted 1936 by Russian immigrant and artist Victor Arnautoff. The images the art depicts are meant to be a realistic representation of Washington’s life, including his association with both Native American peoples and slaves.
However, many feel that it should be removed from the walls of the school as the images bring up points in our history that can make individuals feel uncomfortable. Educators, parents, students and the school board alike have found them to be offensive, saying that it “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.
On the opposite side of the argument are leftists who, while not altogether agreeing with the message of the paintings, are not willing to let art and a piece of the school’s history be destroyed just because someone was offended.
In June the matter was brought before the Board of Education, which decided to remove to murals or whitewash over them. While the school board noted that America should not simply forget the wrongs our past, they decided that the halls of a school might not be the best place for teaching that lesson.
Washington’s actual life and the images displayed in this series of art are chucked full of ideas that are not acceptable today. Washington is seen in these murals as a man who not only participated in owning other human beings and in the extermination of Native Americans but as a leader who allowed an entire nation to do likewise.
And many are enraged by these facts. Native American activist Amy Anderson says that the images show “American history form the colonizer’s perspective.”
However, those that fight for murals to stay say that covering them up won’t change history. And the school board’s decision has not gone over well as a result.
What we have here is battle that pits left against left, with two very different viewpoints. One side is worried about the liberal tradition of being able to express oneself above all, while the other new-age progressive claims that you have the right to be offended by everything.
So on Tuesday, the board was brought in to vote on the issue again, with school board President Stevon Cook offering somewhat of a compromise. He proposed that the school cover them up, not with paint in a way that would destroy them, but by creating some other form of artwork to be placed over the paintings.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Cook said that most people should agree that the 13-panel mural ‘depicts the racist history of America’ and said that it’s important to acknowledge the ‘racism, discrimination, and the dehumanizing of people of color and women in American history.”
“The Board authorizes staff to develop a project assessing a range of alternatives…that removes from public view the Arnautoff Mural at George Washington High School using solid panels or reasonably similar equivalent material, means, or methods.”
While the new artwork will take years to complete, it is to portray “the heroism of people of color in American, how we have fought against, and continue to battle discrimination, racism, hatred, and poverty,” according to Cook.
He said in a later statement, “I know this alternative is harmful to those who wanted to paint it over and there are people in the preservation community who think we’re going too far by covering the mural. Our schools need to be places where all students feel safe, seen, and supported.”
While we can agree on that last statement, we must consider the price to do so. Does a wall that contains images of our nation’s past really make anyone feel unsafe? Do they think that somehow the wrongs that were committed those hundreds of years prior are going to be allowed to transpire again?
No, what it does is merely make some feel uncomfortable. It brings to mind a time in our history that contained ideas that should not be tolerated and were atrocious. However, that doesn’t mean that we can just ignore that they happened in the hopes that somehow that will make up for it.
As an actor, civil rights activist, and alumni of this particular school Danny Glover says, “You have to feel uncomfortable to sense what the past is and how the past is connected to the future.”