George Boardman: We can’t learn from our mistakes if we sanitize American history
Observations from the center stripe: Road edition
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It has been observed that the victorious write history, but that doesn’t stop others from revising or rewriting it, and — as we have seen recently — erasing the unpleasant parts of our history altogether.
The erasing of unpleasant aspects of our journey through time started a couple of years ago with the movement to get rid of Civil War monuments, viewed by some as glorification of the South’s defense of slavery under the guise of “states rights.”
California didn’t start the trend, but was quick to embrace it. Anything that smacked of the old Confederacy came under suspicion. The Dixie School District in Marin County bowed to pressure and changed its name, several schools in the state named Lee were asked to reconsider, and Fort Bragg came under suspicion because it was named for a Union officer who later joined the rebels.
Much of the focus is on the treatment of blacks and Native Americans since the founding of this country, which hasn’t lived up to the lofty words of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In California, much of the scrutiny is on our early Spanish settlers, particularly the work of Catholic friar Junipero Serra in starting a chain of 21 missions in the state that offered salvation to the heathen native population, along with slave labor, poverty, disease, forced religious conversion, and violence.
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That prompted UC Santa Cruz to remove a California mission bell from the campus at the urging of Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, which see the bell markers as racist symbols that glorify the domination and dehumanization of their ancestors.
“This has been a sick feeling in our gut for most of our lives,” said Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun, who led the effort to remove the bell. “Growing up, we saw the missions and we knew that they were places of atrocity, of murder, rape, savagery, slavery and incarceration.”
There are an estimated 500 bell markers along California highways, according to Caltrans, so there is a lot of work to do if we remove all references to the crowning achievement of Serra’s life, which earned him sainthood in 2015. Others are chipping in to do their part.
Stanford University last year removed Serra’s name from two dormitories and its own mail address on Serra Mall, and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued an apology through an executive order for the state’s wrongdoing against Native Americans.
He also announced a Truth and Healing Council for American Indians to provide their perspective on the relationship between tribes and the state. You have to figure the massive statue of Serra at a rest stop on Highway 280 near San Mateo isn’t long for this world.
Even our Founding Fathers are being placed under the microscope by history Puritans. Charlottesville, Va., recently voted to no longer celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on April 13 as an official holiday, and instead celebrate Freedom and Liberation Day on March 3, commemorating the emancipation of thousands of slaves when Union forces arrived in the city in 1865.
The vote was taken four days before the Fourth of July, which celebrates the Declaration of Independence largely written by Jefferson. He also founded the University of Virginia, located in Charlottesville, and Monticello, his home and plantation, is nearby.
But the third president of this country was also a slave owner — he owned more than 600 slaves throughout his life, 400 of whom were enslaved at Monticello. That was enough for the city council to dump his holiday.
In San Francisco, the school board decided to paint over a mural at George Washington High School because it shows African American slaves working on Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and white settlers stepping over the body of a dead Indian.
“It’s always an issue when anyone wants to remove or cover or displace art,” said Mark Sanchez, vice president of the board. “But there are many countervailing issues we have to look at as well. We believe students shouldn’t be exposed to violent imagery — that is degrading.”
The mural — which covers 1,600 feet of walls at the high school — was painted 81 years ago by Victor Arnautoff, a noted muralist of his day. Arnautoff was born in Russia and was a card-carrying communist. Conservatives objected to his work when it was created and now the left finds it offensive — my kind of artist.
Earlier this year, San Francisco took down a sculpture offensive to Native Americans from an “Early Days” monument in the city, and Arcata in Humboldt County removed a statue of President William McKinley on the grounds he was a racist.
Nevada City headed off that problem by rejecting a proposed statue of Senator Aaron Sargent on the same grounds. But that doesn’t mean we are woke — the Famous Marching Presidents still include nine slave owners when they march through the Queen of the Northern Mines.
The job of covering up the ugly aspects of our nation’s history is never ending, and while it may be comforting to some, we run the risk of losing the lessons we can learn from our past mistakes. Then there’s the question of what we should consider “shameful.”
“We need to reconsider the place of these monuments in public places,” said Steven Hackel, a history professor at UC Riverside. “But I don’t think we want to move toward a society that sanitizes its past and prevents us from reliving these painful episodes.”
Meanwhile, the effort continues. Congress is currently considering legislation that would rescind 20 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers for the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which nearly 300 Native Americans were killed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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