Nike, Slavery, and Cheating History
As a shoe and sporting goods company, Nike is used to setting trends. In the past week, it became a mere part of one with its decision to pull a new sneaker design because of its depiction of a Revolutionary-era American Flag. The Wall Street Journal reported the decision was driven by former professional football player Colin Kaepernick, who pointed out that the flag flew during a time when slavery was legal in America.
Setting aside the debate of what that flag stands for, the decision makes Nike became just the latest entity to fumble with an important question: What do we do with America’s checkered history regarding slavery?
Consider the story of George Washington High School in San Francisco. Neighborhood activists are fighting to cover up or remove a mural which depicts the school’s namesake purchasing a slave and shows American pioneers trampling over American Indians to seize more land:
A high school in San Francisco is considering three options for censoring a mural of George Washington deemed problematic by the local activist community: putting up a curtain (price tag: $300,000), painting over it ($600,000), or hiding it behind panels ($875,000).
No doubt San Francisco United School District could hire quite a few teachers in lieu of executing even the cheapest of those plans, but a 13-member working group asserts the mural must go. It “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression,” and “doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered.” It’s also responsible for traumatizing students, according to the activists.
These are uncomfortable images, to be sure, but if the school’s history teachers are doing their jobs it won’t be the only spot in the school where kids are being exposed to these concepts.
The mural opponents have allies on the other coast. In June, just an hour south of Washington, D.C. (if traffic is kind), the Fredericksburg, Va. city council voted to remove an old slave auction block from a downtown street corner.
As with other Virginia cities like Alexandria and Manassas, Fredericksburg has a charming, brick-lined old town section; when you walk down the street in these places it isn’t hard to imagine walking the same path during colonial or antebellum eras. The nondescript slab of concrete sat on a street corner amid such an atmosphere in Fredericksburg. A little plaque near the slab explained that in the years before the Civil War, this was the main location where residents and visitors could buy and trade people.
Suddenly stumbling over this ghoulish relic offers a sobering (and necessary) reality check against an overly romantic view of history. Fredericksburg’s government has chosen instead to move the landmark to a museum, hiding it from a general public that might find it upsetting.
The running theme is comfort: The objects and images being removed are considered “offensive” because they recall the wrongs of yesterday.
What does this comfort cost, though?
Neither Nike executives, nor the Washington High mural opponents, nor the Fredericksburg city council petitioners want to “whitewash” history. Yet removing these symbols and images also removes any discussion about the pain of slavery and the halting steps America has taken in the pursuit of racial healing since. Despite intentions, whitewashing history is exactly what happens when we hide uncomfortable truths.
Sure, keeping these images in plain sight would make people uncomfortable. Considering America’s history, though, isn’t a little bit of discomfort warranted?
This might not be politically correct to say, but items like the high school mural and the Fredericksburg auction block are too important for white people to see. Yes, they might remind minorities of past atrocities, but they’ll remind whites of those atrocities, too.
If one of the main reasons we try to learn and understand history is to avoid the mistakes of the past, we have to deal with those mistakes and understand why and how they happened. Most white people will never understand the consequences of being born black in America, but being forced to face history is a good way to at least create sympathy.
Take George Washington, the secular Saint of American independence.
He’s the namesake of Washington High in San Francisco (and a lot of other things) because he did great things under the banner of American liberty. He inspired the nascent American army to fight bravely against long odds in pursuit of high ideals. And, when his heroism in war earned him power during peacetime, he humbly gave up that power at just the right time.
And yet, for all there is to admire about him, Washington did enrich himself on the backs of slave laborers. Historians suggest Washington grew uncomfortable with slavery, yet for all his bravery to advance the concept of liberty in America, his evolution on the subject was never complete. Any reading of his legacy is incomplete unless one acknowledges both sides of this coin.
The lesson isn’t that Washington was a bad dude, but that he did some very bad things alongside the very heroic things. And if Washington can be both heroic and morally failing at the same time, isn’t that true for each of us? If Washington can be so wrong about something, could our own views on something be wrong, or incomplete? All of us should ask ourselves these questions frequently—and about everything, not just race relations.
In that light, erasing Revolutionary-era symbols, rinsing mentions of the founders because of slavery, or hiding the evidence of the slave trade all have the same unfortunate (if unintended) outcome: Pushing issues of race to the periphery. It cheats us all out of the complete view of history, and thus the perspective we need so badly. It handles America’s early sins with an eraser when we should be using the other side of the pencil to add to our knowledge.
In Charlottesville, Va. — the city that, in recent years, has become exhibit A about the dangers of forgetting history — the city council drew some attention recently for ending a city holiday commemorating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, penning the phrase, “all men are created equal” at a time when he owned slaves himself.
But Charlottesville didn’t scrub all mentions of Jefferson from city-owned sites or demand they tear down his statue at the University of Virginia or close down Monticello — where you can still see the slave-tended fields that made Jefferson wealthy. As councilor Wes Bellamy noted, “You literally can’t go anywhere within our city without hearing or seeing a reminder of Thomas Jefferson.”
Charlottesville replaced the April 13 holiday with “Freedom and Liberation Day” on March 3, commemorating the day Union troops freed Charlottesville’s slaves. They have marked a different historic day as a city holiday, and it’s one that might otherwise go unrecognized. Unlike Nike, the anti-mural activists in San Francisco, and those who pushed the Fredericksburg slave auction block behind museum doors, the Charlottesville City Council added to the story, rather than taking away from it.
There may not be a single “right answer” for handling the less noble elements of America’s story, but sweeping those elements under a rug in the name of comfort is always the wrong answer. No one ever corrected history’s injustices by running away from the past.