Victor Arnautoff. "Life of George Washington"

When is the past past? When the present is understood through its terms

As a therapist, I am profoundly aware of the complexities of coming to terms with history while seeking change in the present. My work has shown me that we can’t “get over” something painful that has happened. We have to come to terms with it, understand that, as long as it remains unacknowledged, it will continue to impact us. Often my work with clients is to accompany them as they learn to tolerate the pain of what happened then, think through with them how that pain has shaped what has felt possible until now, and strategize with them specific ways of learning to be different in each moment that presents itself as available for that process. But coming to terms with the past is easier said than done. If our present is shaped by the events of our history, then whose terms are we agreeing to when we seek to understand what future to imagine into being?

This week, I drove to San Francisco to meet with the smart and articulate diversity facilitator and experienced school teacher and administrator, Lori Cohen. Fortuitously, on the way I listened to an airing of Forum on KQED with Michael Krasny about the Victor Arnautoff mural at George Washington High School in the city. The SF Unified School Board is considering a recommendation to remove or destroy the mural. It depicts slaves, and Native Americans subject to colonial violence.

Arnautoff was a Russian muralist who lived in San Francisco for about thirty years, from the 1930s to the early 1960s. He was a follower of Diego Riviera. The 1936 mural, “Life of Washington,” which is painted on the wall at the high school named after the slave-owning first president, was intended to be a critique, not only of Washington, but of white America’s self-narrative, according to Will Maynez, steward of the Diego Riviera Mural Project, who spoke on Forum for keeping the mural. You can read more about the whole debate in the San Francisco Chronicle. The article covers many of the points made in the KQED program: that students of color are oppressed and shamed by these stereotypical representations in their school; that “whitewashing” history is not the solution and that censorship is never the answer to these kinds of painful discussions. The comments from readers on the Chronicle site are pretty representative of the NPR debate details, too.

While I appreciate the critique the mural offers, and agree with the one side that it’s an opportunity for high school students to learn facts about the past not provided by traditional textbooks or by white America’s idea of itself, I found myself convinced by the argument made by Paloma Flores, the program coordinator of the Indian Education Program at San Francisco Unified School District Office of Access & Equity. She kept saying, “Representation matters,” and insisting that in the absence of the curriculum changing to accurately reflect minority histories and cultures, and in the ongoing marginalizing experiences of black and Native American students, this mural was hurtful. The reduction of black and Native people to abject stereotypes reinforces these stereotypes and reinforces a racial hierarchy that students find uncomfortable to navigate, given that the hierarchy still exists. Where, she asked, is the integration of the heroic, valuable, positive content of the histories and cultures of people of color into mainstream structures, including schools? Until that happens, she said, the mural belongs in an art museum and not in the kind of public space that is supposed to facilitate the growth of all young people.

 Her point was not responded to directly in the program, but it was endorsed by the two mothers of students of color who called in to reiterate that their children already had to manage reductive and stereotyped representations of who they are in this culture, and that having this repeated throughout the school day was not helpful, to say the least. Maynez’s main response was the slippery slope to censorship argument, and the idea that democracy is best served when all the information is available to everyone, so we can all make informed decisions. Who, he asked, should be tasked with deciding what you see otherwise?

 This is a fascinating, infuriating debate. It helped me enormously that Lori got it immediately, and was able to articulate why one-sided versions of black and Native American experiences are not helpful for students in their places of learning, even as it remains important to insist on the truth of America’s brutal history (which brutality is embedded in all the current structures – this really was the point that was not properly engaged with, but that’s not surprising.) What it left me with was a renewed sadness, if that is the right word, about the in-fighting amongst progressives. The most striking thing about the Arnautoff mural controversy is that the two sides want the same thing: to honor the experiences of those who have been oppressed in the building of America, and who continue to suffer in the face of its self-fashioning.

 It’s telling to me that the discussion points of and comments to the NPR segment rehearsed the points made in and in response to the Chronicle’s article. Many of the points are valid. But until we can take seriously the ongoing effects of the history depicted in the mural, and prioritize the experiences of those who suffer them over any sense of the importance of dominant cultural artifacts, we will be stuck infighting while the real enemy continues to play the structure to his, and his cronies’, increasing advantage.