The heat is rising in the boardroom at the San Francisco Unified School District headquarters. The 139 person room is filled beyond capacity, and the tension is so thick everyone’s body temperature is up as well. This isn’t the first time I’ve faced a contentious public in my short tenure on the school board. I’ve seen just how high passions can run when people believe that their child’s future is on the line. This issue is a bit different, this crowd has been in a long and heated fight over a school mural.
The debate over the depictions of slaves and dead Native Americans on the infamous mural at Washington High School in San Francisco’s Richmond District has been going on longer than I’ve been alive. But I am proud to preside over the board that, with our unanimous vote to cover up the mural on June 25th, decided to put the conversation to an end.
Part of my responsibility as president of the Board of Education is to facilitate public comment, lead discussion among my colleagues, and bring issues up for a vote. As President, it was also my decision to vote on the fate of Washington’s mural before the end of the 2018-2019 school year. If my ancestors, who were brutally chained and packed in ships like sub-human cargo, could see me now, I’m sure they’d be proud of their son in a position of leadership, which their historical condition never gave them an opportunity to actualize.
But of course, the public comment at the school board meeting isn’t about my personal ancestry, nor is it about the truth regarding the institution of slavery, nor the mass genocide committed against Native Americans. This is about a few images of a 13-panel mural dedicated to one of our country’s founding fathers, George Washington.
I organize public commenters into two groups: those in favor of keeping the mural and those opposed. The passions of the opposing camps are matched, but the stark difference in views is about as striking as the demographic differences in the people that represent them. 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. The people fighting to keep the mural consider themselves defenders of art and the preservers of “true” American history, while those opposed consider themselves the defenders of the historically oppressed.
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. To be clear, I don’t think all whom hold this position should automatically be labeled as racist. That may be the case for some of them, but I wouldn’t cast everyone with such a vicious accusation. But it really doesn’t matter how they feel about my community, it wasn’t enough to stop us from voting to remove the mural on June 25th. I just wonder how some of our local residents who claim to be progressive, yet still advocate to keep the mural, are feeling when they see the likes of the National Review and Tucker Carlson come to their defense. We’ve created some strange bedfellows when progressive socialists and conservative corporate media outlets have a united message in preserving the images of slaves and dead Native Americans to teach teenagers a lesson about history and Washington.
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. Any real student of history knows black people in America have contributed and endured much more than the images of them holding corn depict. We also know the cultural richness of Native Americans deserves more attention than their painted dead bodies being a consequence of Washington and early colonists establishing the American Empire.
Some have accused us of “whitewashing” history with our vote and believe that we should instead use this as a teaching opportunity. They somehow believe that this one mural, in this one high school hallway is the only, or premier, opportunity to teach about the complexities of American history.
We’re the Board of Education, and we’re responsible for setting curriculum standards for every public school in San Francisco. To somehow think painting over this mural is an attempt to disengage in teaching the truths of America’s history across our schools is completely outrageous. Our students should learn about the evolution of the country, how in our founding documents blacks were considered only three-fifths human, how Jim Crow laws rolled back the progress of the reconstruction era, and how the federal housing policy of redlining locked blacks families out of building wealth across generations.
I don’t see any reason why we can’t tell the truth about America’s history after we cover up these murals in response to student-led demands for a more inclusive and safe learning environment. I also don’t believe that acknowledging this shameful history should keep someone like me from loving the country.
My ancestors endured a great deal so that I might thrive. They were refused jobs, bank loans, the right to vote, the freedom to marry who they choose, and decades of over-policing so that I might one day be able to serve in the position that I now occupy. They’ve given as much, if not more, to America than any founding father was ever asked to pay. They are true heroes of the American story. They need to be shown with the strength of spirit, divine dignity, and enduring love that their journey entails. We should be talking to the arts community about how to commission art in our schools that represents those stories not defending images that showcase and relegate our people as a dehumanized subplot in the life of a wartime general.
Stevon Cook is president of the San Francisco Unified School District board.