About those presidents ... - The Bakersfield Californian by Jose Gaspar

Sunday, June 28, 2020

It is refreshing and good to see young people once again getting actively involved in the ongoing struggle for social justice. There was a good turnout at this year's Juneteenth celebration at Yokuts Park marking the end of slavery in the United States.

Speaking of slavery, there have been images all over the news lately of statues of historical figures being forcefully torn down, everything from Confederate generals to ex-presidents to St. Junipero Serra of the Catholic Church. Their sin? Enslaving Blacks and indigenous people in the United States.

But instead of toppling statues a la Saddam Hussein, perhaps it's time to reconsider whether these figures deserve to have schools, parks and other public places named in their honor.

"It would be nice to remove their names from schools," said 18-year-old college freshman Kawanna Williams, who was among the throng at Yokuts Park. "The past is like repeating itself."

Schools in Bakersfield and elsewhere abound with names of those enlightened wise men who are credited with creating what would become the United States. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are among the better known. All slave owners. Not only that but at least one of them, Jefferson, fathered a child with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. Don't know if he ever paid child support. Female slaves had no legal rights to refuse unwanted sexual advances from their masters. Harvey Weinstein would have a field day. Off with their (statue) heads, some say.

Not so fast, say those who defend these guys. Their logic goes something like this: These founding fathers didn't really want to be slave owners; in fact, they abhorred it. It was a great moral dilemma for them and later in life, some even advocated for their freedom. But they had no choice because they couldn't get enough of their fellow enlightened statesmen to renounce slavery through legislation to end it right then and there. So they kept the slaves. And their mistresses. To have slaves during that time was the accepted norm.

"They may have accepted it then, but it wasn't normal," said Toccara Goodwin. The Bakersfield mother was at the Juneteenth celebration with her two school-aged kids in tow, hoping her children learn about the history of Black folks in this country. Goodwin said she agrees historical figures who owned slaves, ex-presidents included, should have their names withdrawn from public sites, especially from schools.

Others take a more cautious approach. "I applaud people trying to make change, but you need to tell the entire story," said Dee Slade, executive director of the African American Network of Kern County and a longtime leader in Kern's Black community. Slade is for having Black history taught as part of the curriculum in public schools.

Ex-Bakersfield police sergeant and former longtime member of the Bakersfield City School District board of trustees Irma Carson traced her ancestry to her great-grandmother, who was born a slave and emancipated at 16. Carson herself was born into segregation in Missouri and attended all-Black schools. Even so, no Black history was taught.

"I can see renaming some of the schools," said Carson. "But the real history needs to be taught so that when Black kids see that name, they will know what it stands for." Amen.

As for St. Junipero Serra, he's been a thorn in the side of California indigenous groups who see Serra as part of an imperial conquest that beat and enslaved Native Americans during Spain's conquest of the western United States.

The California Catholic Conference of Bishops, including Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno, is coming to Serra's defense. The bishops said last week that Serra was “ahead of his time” in defending the rights of indigenous peoples and that those who have called for statues of him to be removed or torn down “failed the test” of history. And if Serra isn't worthy of a statue, say the bishops, then "... virtually every historical figure from our nation's past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today's standards.”

But wait. You can't just change history by destroying these statues and erase the names of the founding fathers. No, you can't. Rather, we can seize this moment to bring sunlight into darkness through education. There's a bill (AB 331) working its way through the state Senate by Democratic Assemblyman Jose Medina of Riverside to make it a high school requirement for students to take a course in ethnic studies focusing on the history, politics, culture, contributions, challenges and current status of ethnic groups in the United States.

Let's seize that moment. It's long overdue.