City work crews removed a statue of Christopher Columbus from its site near Coit Tower early Thursday June 18, 2020 after learning that a protest was planned targeting the statue. (Courtesy photo)

From The Editor: It’s time to knock American history off its pedestals

Do we really need statues of former slaveholders and men who abused indigenous people to sow the seeds of the American story?

There is perhaps little reason for you to listen to me on the topic of Black Lives Matter and statues that are toppling like dominoes. I am white. I grew up in a small New England town where there were so few Black people, the government filled a bus with Black kids from our nearest city and sent them to our school.

Growing up, I knew only one Black person who resided in town. He lived just a few blocks away and he is one of my brother’s closest friends. He was supposed to be the best man in my brother’s wedding, but my cousin had to stand in after our friend was assaulted in Boston by some yahoos who did not like that he was walking down the street with a white woman, whom he was dating. Thankfully, he survived.

My parents, as blue collar as they come and despite having very little exposure to other races, had raised us to not judge people by their color, their language, nor their sexual preference, and so the attack stunned us.

At the time, I was proud of being colorblind.

But now, as so many of us stumble through our whiteness to figure out how to make sure we are doing all we can to fight racism, I fear I took the concept of being colorblind too far. As my circle of friends became more diverse and I traveled to other continents, I too rarely asked friends what it is like to be Black, to be Jewish, to be Latina. I did not talk to them about the bias they faced, the “driving while Black” traffic stops they endured, the misperceptions they had to overcome even as I was not naive that these things occur. I feared that pointing out the color of their skin or heritage would be prejudiced, as if it was the only attribute I was seeing in them.

Today, the more questions I ask of my friends and of my country, the more exhausted and enraged I am by the answers.

I am exhausted by the hand-wringing, by the second guessing, by the justification of those who argue that we will forget the country’s complex history if we don’t have dirty little reminders everywhere: in art, in statues, in the names of streets, of schools and of cities.

I am exhausted by the propaganda so many of us were fed in school about America’s history. I am embarrassed that just five years ago, I returned to Mount Vernon during a work trip to Washington D.C. for the purpose of buying more heritage seeds from the flower gardens there.

This time, however, I saw through the bullshit narrative delivered by the docents, who told the visitors that many of the slaves were treated like family. I was livid as the tourists nodded and assuaged America’s guilt with this lie. Just a couple weeks ago, I bought “You Never Forget Your First,” a biography of George Washington. When he died, Washington still had more than 300 slaves at Mt. Vernon and those slaves were physically disciplined — to put it politely — sometimes by the hand of America’s first president himself.

I skipped the gift shop at the tour’s end this time. I did not want those seeds to grow in my soil any longer.

Do we really need statues of former slaveholders and men who abused indigenous people to sow the seeds of the American story? At Golden Gate Park recently, monuments of Francis Scott Key and Ulysses Grant and Father Junipero Serra came tumbling down. A few George Washingtons have been toppled throughout America, and The City removed the statue of Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower.

In my native state of Connecticut, Hartford is taking down the statue of Columbus near its Capitol. The mayor said they will find a more appropriate way to recognize Italian heritage, the original purpose of the monument.

It’s like Trevor Noah said recently: You do not need a monument to understand history; read books instead. The bubonic plague happened, he points out, but no one built a statue of a rat to remember it.

No student should be required to walk by a mural in the high school they attend that depicts slavery and genocide as they have at George Washington High School in San Francisco for decades. The intention of the 1930s artwork to educate gets lost behind the graphic, humiliating images. After much debate, the San Francisco Unified School District last year finally decided to cover it up.

Yes, it is time to dismantle these monuments to misery. And yes, maybe there has been some collateral damage to a hero here and there, who perhaps should not be tarnished with the same broad brush. That is perhaps the price of change.

In our newsroom, we had been discussing whether to start capitalizing Black, and then, the Associated Press, which advises publications on style and grammar, changed its style to make the word Black uppercase when it refers to race. We adopted the change immediately. It’s not that hard.

Before I took the job at the San Francisco Media Co. in 2018, my research turned up a dark period in the Examiner’s history. The paper started under another name, and was a pro-Confederate publication. After Lincoln’s assassination, mobs burned down the office of that first publication, which promptly changed its name and, eventually, its point of view. It gave me pause as to whether to take the position. However, I’d like to think we have more than made up for the past in our current iteration.

Now, it’s time for America to do the same. Yes, we need to change policing policies and attitudes and so much more. But if a few monuments come down as we do it, so be it.

And after they do, let’s wait a good long time before we decide if and when to fill those empty pedestals because, going forward, we need to be a little more thoughtful about the heroes we worship.

Deborah Petersen is the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Media Co. which publishes the Examiner and SF Weekly. You can reach her at askeditor@sfmediaco.com.

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