Here's a switch: a San Francisco school opts to wipe a history lesson off the face of George Washington High School building - a WPA mural of America's first president overseeing his black slaves laboring at his Mount Vernon estate. Why erase history? To avoid offending the mostly black student enrolled at the school. George Orwell would have advised against this idea, having written that the best way to tear people down is to keep them from knowing their history.

There's nothing like a fresh start

Radio.com, a listening news station online, quoted Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker as saying that the mural is intended to demonstrate "uncomfortable facts" about our first president. But school board vice president Mark Sanchez contends that students who walk by the image each day are without the choice to see it: "Painting it over represents not only a symbolic fresh start but a real fresh start." Of course, if you following that logic, the school board should remove the slave-owning president's name from the school, too? Come to think of it, what is the US capital doing naming itself after a slave owner?

If the country is to keep step with the San Francisco school board's thinking, we have a lot of whitewashing to do to achieve a "real fresh start."

Preventive measure

But wait, one of the 1970 graduates of Washington High, Lope Yap, Jr., argues that the San Francisco school board is overlooking student experience like his when he felt "awed " by the quiet way the mural criticized America's ugly past. And erasing the picture is making believe the past never happened, he said.

"I would want to deal with history so we can prevent this from ever happening again."

The theory doesn't hold up

There's a flaw in Yap's prevention theory. After all, it's been 504 years since Michelangelo carved out of marble the 17-foot tall figure known as the Dying Slave, which has stood in plain sight at the Louvre since 1794 and nothing to reduce the slave market. I'm thinking of all the black servants in Dutch Golden Age painting like Jan Steen's group portrait of the Gerrit Schouten family, popularly known as Fantasy Interior." While you see the man of the house enjoying his daughters playing the harpsichord and string-like instrument, a black man is refilling glasses from a bucket on the floor. But you'll have to look closely or you'll miss him. Steen pictured him like a dark shadow unless you count his cartoon grin.

Family portrait, complete with slave

And here's the kicker. Even though 17th-century Netherlands shipped close to 65,000 blacks into slavery in the Americas, slavery was forbidden to the Dutch. Sheldon Cheek of Harvard University's Archive and Library has written that Africans would be brought into the Netherlands by slave traders and offered then to rich Dutchmen as "gifts." Steen's picture hangs in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

Should concerned citizens like the school board veep Sanchez remove the Steen painting from view - you know, for for that "fresh start"?

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