Did you know the first president of the United States was such a vile figure that the San Francisco Board of Education feels a mural depicting George Washington’s life traumatizes students and makes it difficult for them to study in such a hostile environment? The Board has unanimously approved removing the Depression-era artwork. It was painted in 1936 and was, at the time, the “largest WPA-funded, single-artist suite on the Pacific Coast.”
Painted by Russian-American Victor Arnautooff, the mural stretches over 1,600 square feet and shows Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, complete with white colonists stepping over a dead Native American and slaves working in the fields. The sole intent of this piece of work was to show the tragic legacy of the first president as a slave owner and the attacks against Native Americans to conquer a people and their land. It was not meant to glorify him, but to demonstrate the destructive times. It serves as a reminder of our roots and what we want to avoid.
While the board voted unanimously to destroy the art and students attended council meetings, weeping about the “hostile environment,” approximately 500 academics and professors throughout California protested the vote and sent a letter urging the school board to reverse its decision:
“It is an important work of art, produced for all Americans under the auspices of a federal government seeking to ensure the survival of art during the Great Depression. Its meaning and commitments are not in dispute. It exposes and denounces in pictorial form the US history of racism and colonialism.”
“…they [San Francisco School Board] voted to destroy a significant monument of anti-racism. This is a gross violation of logic and sense.”
The board doesn’t just want to cover it up so that the offended don’t have to see it, which would mean preserving such an important piece of artwork. No, they want to paint over it, which will cost them about $600,000 and will require an environmental assessment before they can proceed.
Numerous academics and educators disagree with the destruction. Paul Von Blum, senior lecturer in African American studies and communications studies at University of California-Los Angeles, said: “I know it causes students to cringe, but that’s the function of art. And art should never be censored.”
District Board President Stevon Cook, a man of color, wrote an editorial about the issue and the board’s decision, titled “Keep Those Slaves on that Wall!” He uses some pretty harsh reasoning. “YOU KEEP THOSE SLAVES ON THAT WALL!! That’s how you sound trying to push this falsehood about how this mural is the truth about ‘our’ history,” he wrote. And then he went on to deliver thinly veiled insults to those who wish to preserve historical art:
“The overwhelming majority of people in favor of keeping the mural are older whites, while those in favor of taking it down are younger people of color.”
“Defenders of the mural would not consider themselves racist, neither do defenders of the confederate flag or those who fought to keep up the prominent statue of Robert E Lee in New Orleans.”
Cook implied that the board may consider replacing the artwork with empowering stories of Native Americans and African Americans since the mural “relegate(s) our people as a dehumanized subplot in the life of a wartime general.”
Rachael Z. DeLue, a Princeton University professor of art history and American studies, takes the opposite view:
“If we cover it up and we whitewash it, not only are we doing a disservice to history, but we’re also doing a disservice to those who suffered at the hands of European-descended Americans: slaves and Native Americans who were traumatized and killed. It’s also the case that this isn’t simply of the past. The legacies of slavery and federal policy about Native Americans live on in the present.”
So who are the racists: those who support the artwork for its historical value or those who want it removed because it causes a hostile learning environment? In the letter requesting the board reverse its decision to destroy the piece, the author had a very strong view on the matter: “The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists.”