What Would Howard Zinn Say?

I admit it—I was confused. I had to read the news from San Francisco two more times before I realized that I had read it right. The school board had voted to destroy a communist-painted mural that depicted US history as the story of slavery and genocide because…it was racist. They didn’t want students to have to see Washington depicted as a slave-purchasing Indian-killer.washington mural 1

First, the historical background: As I described in The Other School Reformers, in the 20th century conservatives fought long and hard to keep what they called “communist” histories out of America’s schools. Books that told the stories of genocide and slavery were repeatedly attacked by groups such as the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution as anti-American and subversive.washington mural 2

This week in San Francisco, though, the 1930s-era murals by communism-friendly artist Victor Arnautoff will be destroyed. It’s not that people don’t understand the point of the murals. The school board seems to understand that these murals were meant to criticize Washington’s participation in genocide and slavery. However, the school board decided that these particular anti-slavery, anti-genocide murals were not the best way to teach kids. In the words of the school board’s working group,

We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.

Indeed, the activists who opposed this mural came from the left, not the right. It was not the honest depictions of slavery and genocide against which they protested, but rather the depictions of African Americans and Native Americans solely as victims, slaves, and corpses. As one anti-mural activist told the LA Times,

Our students deserve better. We don’t need to see ourselves portrayed as dead Indians every single time we see ourselves portrayed in any type of art or in any books. We don’t need that. . . . We know our history already — our students don’t need to see it every single time they walk into a public school.

washington mural 3As another anti-muralist told the Washington Post,

It is time to erase the dominant narrative of the dead and defeated Native American. . . . It is important that our public schools are a place for all students to learn and be educated in a safe environment.

After reading these arguments, I felt like I understood the objections better. Perhaps the school board is not merely echoing the sentiments of right-wingers and trying to block any depiction of the ugly side of US history. Rather, the goal is to give students a deeper “counter-narrative.”

Still, as a history teacher, I’m feeling nonplussed. It is difficult enough to talk about racial violence and imperialism in class. Literally whitewashing an attempt to show those histories doesn’t seem like the best way to get those important conversations going.

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1 Comment

  1. Patrick Halbrook

     /  July 3, 2019

    It seems to me that the main incongruity here, which no one seems to be bringing up, is that the murals are critical of Washington–even condemnatory of him–while gracing the walls of a high school that honors him by virtue of its name. If anything, it would make more sense to rename the school and leave the mural.

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