A George Washington mural at a San Francisco school pictures slaves picking cotton and colonizers walking past a Native American corpse. It is intentionally unsettling. Painted in 1936 as a counter narrative against those who sought to bury troubling chapters of American history, the School Board has recently voted to paint it over because it upsets, offends, and misrepresents the school’s commitments and aims.
Erasing failings renders them failures.
Americans prize exceptionalism. Our freedoms are a beacon. Our gifts to the world are surpassing. We love to look up, but we find it hard to look back.
In this week’s portion of Torah, Korah’s rebellion is punitively put down. The earth swallows the insurgents and all of their possessions (Num. 16:32). The only objects that remain are copper fire pans, left over from the rebel’s unaccepted incense offering. The pans are hammered into metal sheets that form a lining for the altar. They become a permanent memorial recalling this destructive chapter of our history (Num. 17:3-5). All future offerings encounter this symbol (va-yehiu l’ot livnei yisrael) of nationwide collapse. Yet, facing our lowest points also reminds us our capacity for national recovery.
Bryan Stevenson urges, in his new documentary on racial inequality, “It’s important that we understand all the ugly details. Because those are the things that actually give rise to what might allow us to one day claim something really beautiful.”
It’s hard to learn to swim if you’re always wearing a life-preserver. It’s harder to grow if you bury the failures whose ultimate purpose can be to school you in recovery.