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PD Editorial: Don’t destroy San Francisco school’s Washington mural

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Plans to paint over a San Francisco high school’s mural might seem a bit outside the bailiwick of Santa Rosa residents and this opinion page, but when it’s a terrible push to sanitize American history by destroying a historic piece of art, that’s everyone’s business.

The San Francisco Board of Education recently voted to spend $600,000 to paint over a 13-panel mural at George Washington High School. The school is in the Outer Richmond neighborhood, between Golden Gate Park and Lincoln Park Golf Course. Most of the approved funds will pay for an expensive environmental analysis. White paint is cheap in this grand scheme of things.

The mural depicts the life of George Washington. One panel shows the nation’s first president directing westward expansion over a dead Indian. Another shows him overseeing slaves at his Mount Vernon home.

In a bout of overzealous cultural sensitivity, the board concluded that those images might traumatize high school students. The offending artwork must be erased from existence, left to survive only as a digital scan. One school board member justified this extreme measure as reparations.

As so often happens when the pitchforks come out, the board members completely missed the point or, more likely, willfully ignored it. The mural does not celebrate slavery and colonial murder — quite the opposite, in fact.

Victor Arnautoff, a Russian immigrant and communist, painted the work in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration, a cornerstone program of the New Deal. His murals appear in several other buildings around the Bay Area.

He included the offending scenes to challenge the hagiography that often surrounds America’s founders. It was a subversive choice. He wanted students to remember that Washington and the other founders were not perfect. They owned slaves, and they built a nation on the genocide of Native Americans.

Those are historic truths that students would do well to learn. Yet the school board would erase them.

Would the school board next ban “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” for their depictions of racism? Perhaps poet Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” needs to go. That might not go over so well as the city is in the process of selecting a statue of Angelou to install outside the Main Library. She attended George Washington High School, and apparently didn’t suffer lifelong, debilitating emotional scars from walking past the mural.

Indeed, destroying a painting is worse than a book ban. A book will survive in other libraries. A painting is singular. Once it’s gone, it can’t be restored.

This isn’t the first time the mural has generated controversy. In the 1960s, a similar debate took place. Then, cooler heads prevailed. A compromise saw new murals added to the school depicting people of different races overcoming oppression.

The mural should stay as a teaching tool that illustrates an accurate history of the country. If students take away the wrong message, it is a failure of today’s adults, not the artist.

If that is too far for the school board, they should simply cover the murals with panels or curtains. Don’t take the irreversible step of painting over them. Surely we have not become a country in which destroying important civic art is even a serious option.

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