A school district in Northern California is considering the removal of a mural depicting George Washington from George Washington High School over concerns that it “traumatizes students and community members.”
The panels of the mural had been painted in 1936 by Russian-American painter Victor Arnautoff, as part of a Works Progress Administration project during the New Deal. Now, a working group made up of several members has concluded that the artwork might be upsetting to Native Americans and African Americans and should be removed from the walls of the school and archived.
“[San Francisco Unified School District] convened a ‘Reflection and Action Working Group’ that was comprised of members of the local Native American community, students, school representatives, district representatives, local artists and historians,” district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick, told The College Fix.
According to The Fix, the group received input during four public meetings from December 2018 to February 2019.
“At its conclusion the group voted and the majority recommended that the ‘Life of Washington’ mural be archived and removed because the mural does not represent SFUSD values,” Dudnick continued.
According to the Richmond District Blog, two of the 13 panels in particular were criticized for being problematic: one showing Washington motioning toward some explorers who are passing by the body of a gray figure, which is apparently a dead Native American, and another showing Washington next to slaves performing manual labor.
“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,” states the Richmond District Blog. “This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered.”
But not everyone agrees. A historian by the name of the Fergus M. Bordewich wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the district should have considered the intention of the artist before deciding what to do with the mural.
“The mural’s painter, Victor Arnautoff, was a protégé of Diego Rivera and a Communist. He included those images not to glorify Washington, but rather to provoke a nuanced evaluation of his legacy,” he wrote. “The scene with the dead Native American, for instance, calls attention to the price of ‘manifest destiny.’”
Dudnick told The Fix that the district has not decided for sure yet what to do with the mural.
This is, of course, far from the first time that there has been controversy revolving around what to do with some of the horrifying aspects of our history as a country. One thing is for sure: There is nothing we can do to change them. So the only question that remains is: How do we handle them? Do we expose and confront them head-on? Or do we bury them, pretending that they never happened?
As Bordewich pointed out, the intention of the mural was not to celebrate the problematic aspects of George Washington’s legacy. No — it was to do the opposite. It depicted some of the horrifying things in which Washington was involved not to glorify those things, but to point out the very real truth that the man we so often honor was responsible for some things that were the opposite of honorable.
Now, I fully understand that as a white person, I have absolutely no idea what it would be like to be a member of the African-American and/or Native-American community and view this mural. As a Polish American, none of this is part of my family’s history, and I have no idea how I might feel if it were. So I am coming away from this controversy not with a definitive answer, but with a larger question: How do we handle the tragedies of the past? Because honestly, I keep hearing it both ways. I have repeatedly heard from people on the Left that the history of George Washington and the Founding Fathers is too often “whitewashed,” that their transgressions are ignored, and their accomplishments lauded, and that this causes pain. Now I’m hearing that an art piece with the clear intention of combating that trend is offensive as well?
I know it’s uncommon for a columnist to write a piece with the thesis “I don’t know,” but that’s exactly what I’m doing, and I doubt that I’ll be fired. After all, with people who are seemingly on the same side spouting two opposite narratives, I doubt that I could be the only one who is confused.
So — how should we handle the past? I’m listening.