What’s in a Name (of a High School): From George Washington to Maya Angelou
(I normally like to keep my posts shorter… but this is an important conversation. So, it deserves more than a listicle or a sound-bite. I hope you’ll read all the way.)
Last week Matt Haney, President of the San Francisco Board of Education, posed questions over social media, asking if we should rename schools like George Washington High School which carry the names of former slave-owners. Haney suggested that instead of George Washington, we might consider renaming the school after a celebrated poet and author, Maya Angelou (who is actually a former alumna of the school). In this way our district could celebrate a famous San Franciscan, while at the same time lifting up the contributions of Black Women in our country’s history.
SF school board prez Matt Haney wants name-change for schools honoring slave owners like George Washington High. pic.twitter.com/NIEZuLXnmr
— carolyn tyler (@ctylerabc7) September 6, 2016
Haney understood that his comments would be shocking to some:
“I knew it would be provocative and start a debate,” he said, before pausing. “I should say, start a conversation.”
Nonetheless, Haney is learning, along with other members of our education community, that raising “provocative” questions related to anti-black racism in our schools can be downright dangerous. Since then, he, along with many other board members have received hate-filled emails full of anti-black rhetoric and even death threats. (Yikes!)
Haney shared some of the vile emails he has received and confirmed (in case you didn’t already know) that not all Bay Area residents are as progressive as one would like to think. One email sent to all Board members this past week was from a George Washington High School alumna, named “Sandy” (not her real name).
I won’t share Haney’s post in its entirety (because, well… we’ve all heard these racist rants before. And, frankly along with all the hashtags, I don’t need any convincing that there are a hell of a lot of Americans who HATE Black people.)
Nonetheless, I will share some of it, as it exemplifies almost all arguments I’ve heard against making changes to institutionalized racism in our education system, which at its inception was founded on white supremacy.
This choice quote is a perfect example, in which the author criticizes Haney by explaining why slavery wasn’t all that bad:
Let’s look at history: Were slaveholders wrong to have slaves? Yes, of course. But look at this: The lives of the slaves in America were far better than the lives they had in Africa. In Africa, they hunted with arrows and picked berries, lived in huts, bathed in streams, roamed about mostly naked, and cooked over a pit fire. In America they had cabins, available water and apparatus to cook on. They learned trades – women learned to cook, sew, clean, wash; men had various jobs – shoeing horses, plowing, farming and a host of other jobs necessary to running a plantation. They had food to eat and clothing to wear. The plantation owners took care of their slaves because if one could not/did not work, it was a drain on the owner.
“Sandy” then it goes on to explain that after slavery ended… “Yes, there was segregation and strong emotional feelings toward the Blacks. But they were free” to find a better life. Oh and by the way, unlike European settlers, they had an added advantage in that “they spoke English.” With all of this “logic” laid out, she then goes into a rant about Blacks having no family unit, Black mothers having no self-respect and having sex with lazy deadbeat Black men… blah… blah… blah…
Summary: Whites are innocent. Racism doesn’t exist. Blacks should stop crying victim and take some responsibility for the sorry state of the Black community.
So why am I posting this?
We all know, racism is nothing new. What is new is the fact that folks seem perfectly entitled to share these opinions freely, and in fact seem proud to share them.
What is even more disturbing is the fact that folks who actively espouse these ideas aren’t just crazy kooks who surf the “Interwebs” all day. These beliefs are held by people in positions of power in our schools.
Case in point, the current president of the Lowell High School PTSA has shared similar views. And he is doing more than just talking. He is using his power as PTSA president along with his relationship with Lowell alumna and current Board of Education Commissioner Emily Murase, to actively undermine district policies aimed at eliminating segregated tracking in our schools.
This is what he has to say about the reasons Black students are disproportionately represented at Lowell:
Notice a trend? Racism doesn’t exist. Well, at least not against Blacks. Black parents are the cause of all problems in the Black community. Oh! and Blacks are also to blame for causing racism against innocent white children in our schools. (And did I mention #whitetears?)
(You are probably getting the picture right now that NO! I’M NOT GOING TO STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS! The fact that the Lowell community isn’t up in arms over all this, just shows how entrenched racism is in our society. Read more here.)
Getting back to the George Washington High School Debate
So… if racist rants are not new, what’s the actual benefit of stirring up all this negativity? How does it help to share one more example of this type of hate?
Well, cynics might say Haney is getting some pretty good visibility out of all this. I mean heck, how many Board of Education members get mentioned on “The O’Reilly Factor” and get an article featured in the Washington Post? (During an election no less…)
Haney says one of the main reasons he decided to start the conversation is that he has always found it disturbing that the school contains a mural depicting Washington with enslaved people.
“Numerous students have told me that they’re disturbed by the mural,” he said. “Students have told me that they walk in and it’s disturbing, it’s painful.”
Seeing the mural, I’d have to agree.
School names, murals, statues, flags, mottos… these are ways a culture chooses to represent its deepest held beliefs. These are the ways we make our values visible. As such, a name doesn’t just represent person, and a mural isn’t just a piece of art.
Just see for yourself. George Washington High School is home to a host of murals that are a part of the city’s civic art collection. They are more than just pictures. They reflect the values of the school and our society at large, and have even changed over time.
Mural Restoration at George Washington High School
Watching this video I made a few observtions: The only depictions of Blacks in original school murals were as anonymous athletes and enslaved peoples. Native Americans were also anonymous and shown in war paint and … well, dead. Latinxs? Asians?… Heck, women? Hmm… we might have to wait another 30 years for them to be added.
Add that to the fact that everyone talking in the video is white and … Let’s just say we could be doing a lot better.
So where do we go from here?
I agree with Haney and his supporters that if we truly value the accomplishments of all our citizens, we should see better representation of women, Blacks, Latinxs, LGBTQ, and other members of our community. To do that means having hard conversations, and yes, God forbid… changing things!
Just think what a powerful statement it would make to see the names of Black, Brown, Asian, and LGBTQ women’s names on the halls of our educational institutions. Just think about what it would mean to all of our students to see more diversity among the images in our school hallways.
That said, while many folks appreciate the dialogue Commissioner Haney has started, there are some bringing up questions about the value of spending so much time on hypothetical conversations. Haney has said the decision to change the name of a school should lie with the school community itself, not the Board of Education. If that’s an endeavor the George Washington High School students, staff, parents and alumni want to tackle, I say more power to them.
Conversely, let’s be honest. Naming a school Thurgood Marshall or George Washington Carver or Ida B. Wells isn’t enough to make it great or equitable—you need leadership, passion and community investment.
With all this in mind, and with the knowledge that dismantling white supremacy in our educational institutions is more than a full-time job. I’d like to suggest that while conversations rage on on social media there is a lot of work the Board of Education could do RIGHT NOW to improve the inclusiveness and safety of our childrens’ schools for Black and Brown students, and in so doing for ALL families in SFUSD.
SF Board of Ed: Wanna “fight racism”? Here’s what you can do NOW!
The previous examples should make it painfully clear that there are many Americans who are functionally illiterate when it comes to our country’s history, especially in relation to slavery, westward expansion, immigration, and civil rights. As Robin DiAngelo, an expert on white racism, states, schools are one of the primary sites of acculturation in our society. Unfortunately, based on our current education system, unless we educate ourselves or are taught by our parents, we are bound to be ignorant about racism:
Because most whites have not been trained to think complexly about racism in schools (Derman-Sparks, Ramsey & Olsen Edwards, 2006; Sleeter, 1993) or mainstream discourse, and because it benefits white dominance not to do so, we have a very limited understanding of racism.
While we debate the names and symbols on the walls our institutions, let’s start changing the architecture of our childrens’ learning environment by making sure their books, curriculum and school celebrations reflect the beauty and diversity of our world.
What if ALL Literacy Coaches and Instructional Reform Facilitators and Librarians in the district focused on ensuring all our school and classroom libraries were truly diverse and inclusive? What if we provided our children with an “avalanche of books” to read populated by Black, Brown and Asian heroines and heroes? (We did it at my daughters’ school Jean Parker Elementary School just last year!)
Even better, what if we provided them with opportunities to think critically about their world by assessing the diversity of our own schools, libraries and classrooms. What if we involved them in advocating for the world we would like to inhabit. 3rd graders did this at High Tech Elementary North County school and we can too!
This leads to my next point…
PK-12 Ethnic Studies Curriculum
What if the district funded the development of interdisciplinary curriculum units at every grade level to celebrate the accomplishments of Black, Latino, Asian, LGBTQ men and WOMEN? I’m sure there are some amazing teachers, librarians, artists and community partners who would LOVE to help in this work!
School Celebrations and the Arts
Did you know that as of last year, not all schools celebrate Black History Month? Some don’t recognize contributions of Latinx Americans? And, most don’t acknowledge the LGBTQ community? or disabled Americans?
I’ve been writing about the importance of celebrating contributions of Black Americans in the Arts for a while now. (This is true for all cultural groups!) What if the district funded partnerships with arts organizations to provide cultural celebrations, classroom presentations, artist-in-residence and other school-community partnerships at EVERY school in the district?
More inclusive libraries, curriculum and celebrations have consistently been requested by the district African-American Parent Advisory Council, BTW… Unlike the renaming of schools. (Come join us this Saturday 9/17 and the Annual Black Family Cradle to College and Career Day Resource Fair at Mission High School!)
Getting back to Maya…
Maya Angelou didn’t seem so concerned about fanfare or public recognition. Nonetheless, she would probably have gotten a kick out of the idea that folks were debating naming a school after her that she was originally forced to drop out of due to a teen pregnancy. (The reality is, we should really say Angelou was pushed out, by a racist, mysoginist education system like many Black girls still are today.) We could call this “poetic justice”, no?
Nonetheless, what I think Ms. Angelou would really have appreciated is if schools started shifting the dominant white supremacist narrative of WHITE MALE DOMINANCE to better recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of ALL people in our culture and our world.
With that, I’ll leave you a quote by Maya Angelou herself (shared by Matt Haney):
“I’m grateful for being here. For being able to think, for being able to see, for being able to taste, for appreciating love – for knowing that it exists in a world so rife with vulgarity, with brutality and violence, and yet love exists. I’m grateful to know that it exists.” – Maya Angelou
As for me… I am grateful for Maya… and… for you dear reader. 🙂
We’ve all heard the tired rhetoric of white supremacy repeating itself, over and over, like a broken record, for the last 300 years… It’s time to take action! We can do this! Let’s make change happen in our schools!