A 13-panel mural painted eight decades ago at San Francisco’s George Washington High School has emerged as the latest flashpoint in our nation’s continuing culture wars, but not in the way one might expect. Rather than the usual left-right divide, in this instance the fight is primarily among liberals — those who want the mural removed because they consider it a traumatically offensive reminder to Native American and African-American students of a horrible past, and those who defend the mural as an honest and anything-but-racist representation of the nation’s history, including its less-than-admirable aspects. Talk about a teachable moment.
The 1,600-square-foot “Life of Washington” mural depicts, among other things, the nation’s first president with slaves — which Washington had owned — and directing settlers westward as they step over the body of a dead Native American. Among other things, the mural was apparently intended to evoke the subjugation of native peoples and Washington’s role in it, including his participation in military campaigns against them. It’s an honest look at Washington’s history, and it certainly moves beyond the hagiographical story of the kid who couldn’t tell a lie.
Yet the San Francisco school board, under pressure from activists, has voted to spend $600,000 to paint over the mural. Significantly, no one is arguing that the depictions are racial stereotypes or gratuitously violent. And no one is disputing that the artwork is historically inaccurate. The problem boils down to contemporary sensitivities to depictions of past affronts: Some activists have said the mural makes students feel uncomfortable or “unsafe.” To be sure, such images can be uncomfortable, particularly for people who see themselves in the portrayed victims. But the art depicts history and should be used to launch discussions about the European conquest of native nations, slavery, and oppressive acts by white Europeans and their descendants that are embedded in our nation’s past.
Instead, the board wants to hide the images. But white-washing that history would be an egregious affront not only to the artwork, but to the truth, as painful as it might be.
Interestingly, the 1936 mural itself has a teachable history. It was painted in the depths of the Great Depression by Victor Arnautoff, a one-time assistant to the artist Diego Rivera, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. The Russian-born Arnautoff was a Tsarist cavalry officer during World War I, then joined the White Army to fight the Bolshevik Red Army during the Russian Revolution before fleeing to China as the Bolsheviks took over. He eventually settled in San Francisco and established himself as a significant artist and muralist (some of his work is in Coit Tower), taught art at Stanford University, and came to embrace the communism he once fought against.
Commissioned to paint the Washington mural, Arnautoff created a subversive work that eschewed the conventional glossed-over school lessons about Washington in favor of a less-common but historically accurate perspective, reflecting his desire to explore class and power in his art. He later refused to testify before the Cold War-era House Un-American Activities Committee and, after his wife died in 1961, he returned to the Soviet Union, where he died in 1979. So between the mural itself and Arnautoff’s life and works, the San Francisco Board of Education has the platform for a wide range of lessons on American history, from slavery to westward expansion to the Great Depression to battles over political freedom. It would be foolish to cast that resource aside.
The nation has been struggling in recent years with how to engage, and learn from, its history. Colleges wrestle with whether to remove tributes to founders who were slave owners. States fight over what to do with Confederate flags at public buildings or on license plates. Local governments remove statues of Confederate leaders — traitors, in truth, to the United States — from public property, only to trigger a backlash in some states.
It’s one thing to remove memorials that celebrate or advance a false narrative about the past, such as the notion that the Civil War was about something other than defending slavery and white supremacy. But painting over murals that accurately reflect our history because the truth might offend viewers moves us in the wrong direction. Some of those engaged in the battle over the mural argue that the divisive debate about whitewashing away George Washington hands President Trump yet another wedge issue in his reelection campaign. That’s a strategic argument. The more important concern is embracing and learning from uncomfortable truths, rather than air-brushing them into invisibility.