A non-conformist mural and a non-conformist kid: Why the mural still must be covered up.

My mother and I have been having a bit of a disagreement about a mural in my old high school, George Washington, in San Francisco.

The hell of it is I don’t really disagree with her. I think she feels the mural conveys an important message. She’s right about that:

What makes the mural even more sympathetic to anti-censorship advocates is its message, which was progressive, and even daring, for its time. Created by a communist Russian-American artist, Victor Arnautoff, as one of the artistic works sponsored by the New Deal, it gives an unflattering image of George Washington as a slave owner and shows white colonists stepping over the dead body of a Native American.

The wording has been heated on both sides – no surprise these days. A committee convened to examine the issue claimed that the mural glorified slavery, genocide and oppression. Did they even look at it? Do they know what glorifying means? The artwork is a clear statement to the opposite.

Their opponents have whipped out phrases such as “erasing history” and, of course, “snowflakes.” The mural can be used as a source of education about the horrors that lurk within American history, more reasoned voices say. What’s next, they wondered, erasing war crimes from history books?[1]

My first reaction was disbelief that schools of the day would admit the message.[2] But as near as I can tell from the coverage since, it looks like they knew exactly what they were doing. At the very least, no one is admitting they were hoodwinked.[3] Which still fucking amazes me. Given my experience of that school system, I simply can’t imagine it.

But I also understood that kids might not appreciate the mural:

Sharez Brown, a 16-year-old junior at George Washington High School who spoke to the board before the vote [to cover, not destroy the mural], said that the murals were “hurtful and harmful to many students.” She said that they “tell the history from the perspective of white people,” and added that “students should never have to hear ‘I’ll meet you at the dead Indian.’”[4]

I don’t think I ever actually heard kids mention the “dead Indian.” But would I believe that they do? Absolutely. And do I believe that that might be hurtful to an American Indian student? Absolutely.

I don’t think this mural is ever not going to be problematic.

There is a real problem in that we tend to sanitize our history or at least to limit our accounts to an elite colonial—the victor’s—view.[5] In my earlier comment, I recalled being afraid to ask how killing so many Indians could possibly be right.[6] When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supports the mural’s continued display, I assume it is because they want us not to forget slavery. And we do need to acknowledge the very ugly sides of our history.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, the Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco branch of the N.A.A.C.P., which is in favor of keeping the murals on display, told the board, “It pains me that we have become complicit in a move to do a redaction of history.”

Gray Brechin, a historian and founder of the Living New Deal Project, accused board members of not understanding “what you’re looking at.” He called on people “to recall the school board.”

Earlier this week, the actor Danny Glover, a Washington High graduate, joined the coalition to save the murals and said that destroying or blocking them from view “would be akin to book burning.”[7]

I wish there was a way to move the murals elsewhere. There apparently isn’t.

My problem is that I remember, all too well, my own experience of high school—that high school, from 1974 through 1976. I was bullied. I was picked on. Relentlessly. I understand now, thanks to a study C. J. Pascoe published in 2007, that this was a form of social control, that it occurred at least in part because I simply could never conform to my peers’ expectations. I was labeled a “fag”[8] even though I have been heterosexual my entire life.

I’m not sure I could have understood that the bullying and the teasing were a form of social control even if someone had explained it to me. And I’m not sure that it would have made any difference even if I did understand. Because I still couldn’t have conformed.

That epithet, “fag,” still stings. It is one of the wounds I still carry and that no amount of psychotherapy can ever erase.

If you could tell me with a straight face that kids have changed, that they are less mean than they were, I might be able to believe those murals are okay. But at least as of the time Pascoe did her study, albeit at another high school, they very clearly hadn’t.[9] Her study didn’t just ring true for me. I recognized my own experience in her description. And nothing I’ve heard since suggests that kids are any different now than they were then.

I’m glad that the mural will be covered up rather than destroyed. But I can’t support subjecting any kids to anything like the misery I endured.

  1. [1]Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html
  2. [2]David Benfell, “It’s a cover-up! (Of a mural at my old high school.)” Irregular Bullshit, July 20, 2019, https://disunitedstates.com/2019/07/20/its-a-cover-up-of-a-mural-at-my-old-high-school/
  3. [3]Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board May Save Controversial George Washington Mural,” New York Times, August 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/arts/san-francisco-murals.html; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals,” New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/arts/san-francisco-murals-george-washington.html
  4. [4]Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals,” New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/arts/san-francisco-murals-george-washington.html
  5. [5]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  6. [6]David Benfell, “It’s a cover-up! (Of a mural at my old high school.)” Irregular Bullshit, July 20, 2019, https://disunitedstates.com/2019/07/20/its-a-cover-up-of-a-mural-at-my-old-high-school/
  7. [7]Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals,” New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/arts/san-francisco-murals-george-washington.html
  8. [8]C. J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California, 2007).
  9. [9]C. J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (Berkeley: University of California, 2007).

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