“Commemorative statuary is not about history, it’s about honoring historical people, that’s what a civic center is about,” said San Francisco Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, one of the San Franciscans who advocated this year (and for the last 30, but who’s counting?) for the removal of Early Days, the racist statue that was adjacent to the Main Library until it was finally pulled off its pedestal on Friday.
Shuck, a fifth generation San Franciscan and part Native American (she is a member of the Cherokee nation) was appointed to the laureate position by the late Mayor Ed Lee in 2017 to create community-based public programming which she performs beyond the call of duty, at least 20 times a month in a cross-section of neighborhoods and library branches. But the statue, situated as it was near the entrance to the main branch, was a frequent reminder of the obstacles to equity and access still faced by the majority of San Franciscans and particularly those of Native American heritage. Shuck was determined to use her art and work within the community to remove it and essentially finish a job first started by her maternal grandfather, a union organizer of Polish descent.
“He wanted it to come down because it was the right thing to do,” Shuck explained at a lecture last week, hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The event was intended to educate the art community but happily served as a victory celebration for the surprise announcement that the statue would be cut loose after a rehearing of the case with the Board of Appeals. For her trouble, Shuck was subjected to various insults and threats, some of them on the public record, but she’s made peace with the process, partly by writing through it: She published online 55 poems in 55 days that pondered people’s attachment to the bronze, and what it’s meant to her people.
“Removing things we don’t need to honor anymore is like moving a sofa you didn’t want in the first place,” said Shuck from her home at the center of The City. “The reality is, there are people here who profited from the land or owned California people and nobody talks about that,” she said. “It seems to me there is a certain kind of cultural narcissism that means everything in their eye line needs to represent them or else they are being erased. It seems like a psychological illness that needs to be treated, and I’m not joking.”
Shuck’s mixed heritage and clear-eyed view of matters beyond black and white span millennia, from colonization and immigration to gentrification. The mother of two grown sons and a daughter who is counted among the disproportionate population of missing and murdered indigenous women, she’s uniquely qualified to educate and empathize as we move through our nation’s current crises. Shuck’s lifelong observations of The City, the natural world within it and beyond it, and her own experience with grief and the ways it can transform us, personally and collectively, is the work she’s undertaken as a poet and educator. But the combination of her words and the actions she’s taking to eradicate racism in our town square may end up being her true legacy as poet laureate.
“There is scientific proof that we remember circumstances from the lives of our parents and grandparents,” said Shuck. “It wasn’t a real long time from the last atrocities. We have some way to go to heal.”
Shuck’s involvement in the campaign to remove the Early Days portion of the Pioneer Monument, located near the entrance to the public library and depicting a Native Californian trying to survive his missionary and conquistador oppressors is certainly in synch with the movement to get white America to look at past realities and confront our long-held narratives. Shuck likened it to “a wedding cake topper for the marriage of racialized violence and historical inaccuracy,” and it would seem her micro-mission as an arts educator and San Franciscan is having the desired effect. The penultimate poem in her project is titled, “Shifting the World one Opinion at a Time.”
I have come awake
Homesick in my hometown
Tapped sacred songs onto porch wood
Onto pavement squares
Like a child game
Thrown a placeholder
To the next foothold
Tapped sacred songs onto library walls
City hall walls
The thing we bring here today is not predicted by your security
Coal hot memories
And a terrifying patience
The years-long campaigns to remove the statue and to re-establish a Native Cultural Center are but two of the pursuits Shuck has undertaken as laureate. She upholds a full schedule of curated readings and workshops for elders, youth and people of all cultural backgrounds and abilities at our library branches; she also volunteers for San Francisco Unified School District, and speaks five languages, a fact about which she’s humble and puts her in a unique category of polyglots and citywide communicators.
“Her commitment to ensuring those who haven’t been heard are heard is amazing,” said Barbara Mumby-Huerta, Director of Community Investments with the San Francisco Arts Commission. As a Native American artist and a mother who also worked on the statue removal and marched side by side with Shuck with at last week’s Rise For Climate, Jobs & Justice March, Mumby-Huerta admires Shuck. “Her wit, her drive, her intelligence. She’s accepting and open and she’s really leveraging her role in a way that doesn’t benefit her, but her larger community, paying people out of her own pocket, running from event to event to event.”
As a friend, she talked to Shuck about how exhausting it must be. “She answered, ‘I have the weight of my community on my shoulders, I can’t screw this up’ That’s such an invaluable trait and it’s her,” said Mumby-Huerta.
Shuck got her start in the arts at the City’s first co-op nursery school in Noe Valley. At Alvarado Elementary School she was taught by the sculptor and pioneering arts education advocate Ruth Asawa. As a teenager she was mentored by poet Carol Lee Sanchez and had further powerful role models in Mary TallMountain and Susan Sibbet. During her studies at San Francisco State and abroad, she became acquainted with not only Native women poets but others, from all backgrounds and abilities, including San Francisco’s third poet laureate, Devorah Major. She holds degrees in Fine Arts and Textile Arts, continues to create museum quality beadwork and textile arts, has taught Native American Studies and currently teaches in the Diversity Studies Department at California College of the Arts. And yes, she writes plenty of poetry. Among her published works is the collection, Clouds Running In and the recently reissued Sidewalk NDN, about her experience as an urban Native.
Her 55 poems in 55 days project, “Plus one for the decision and one for the removal,” she added, is what brought her work to the NMAI’s attention. The museum, in association with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, had taken up the matter of statue removal nationwide, ever since the events of Charlottesville last August. The institution’s motivation is much the same as Shuck’s: Educating the public where schools have failed so that never again should generations be subjected to violence based on false perceptions about race.
“The museum’s director Kevin Gover, is very interested in symbols of racism in our society and our efforts to remove them and why,” said Mumby-Huerta. At last week’s lecture, I heard Gover voice it this way: “We’re constantly evaluating our history in light of contemporary sensibilities,” he said. The questions he asks us to consider are whether we are grown up and smart enough to accept the complexity of history.
In the name of full disclosure, I’ve worked side by side with Shuck on several projects toward preserving the veracity of our local independent bookstores, independent publishing and on upending San Francisco’s literary tradition of gatekeeping that shuts out the majority of working artists. I’ve been with Shuck on those days where she actually had to be at two bookings at once (she pulled it off and stayed composed, too). The work of a poet and of organizing is largely invisible. And when an artist like her is recognized for her contribution, we all benefit, and I don’t just mean artists: All people, benefit from her position as laureate.
“I’ve had full times jobs that I’ve spent less time on than this job,” said Shuck “There’s not one day as laureate that I haven’t thought about the job or acted on it.”
“She truly does the work for everyone,” said Mumby-Huerta. “She does it for her daughter as well.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.