You Can’t Judge a Historical Figure by Today’s Standards

Some people take it upon themselves to make wholesale changes to history by applying contemporary sensibilities to those who lived in the past.

Matt Haney, San Francisco School Board President, made headlines a couple of weeks ago when he recommended that George Washington High School be renamed due to Washington being a slave owner.  He suggested replacing Washington’s name with Maya Angelou’s.

As much as I admire Angelou, she worked as a prostitute and a madam when she was young, not exactly noble professions.  However, overcoming these obstacles as well as a childhood rape makes her story of survival and success quite compelling.   There should be a school named after her, but not at the expense of removing the name of the father of our country.

Back in the 1770s, wealthy men typically were slave owners.   To his credit, Washington had written in his will that his slaves were to be freed.  The Mount Vernon website states that Washington was “the only slave-holding Founding Father” to do this.

Think of all the schools, streets, and cities named after George Washington.

Since half of Washington, D.C.’s population is African-American, should that region be renamed as well?

It is wrong to judge a person from the past based on current mores.

One could make the case that all historical figures have something in their past that would not pass the 2016 litmus test.

John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, probably would not have been in favor of same-sex marriage in 1960, but that was not even an issue in his time so it is unfair to judge him on it.

Who is to say that something people do now may be viewed as abhorrent 50 or 100 years from now?

Some people protest the teaching of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in schools because of the frequent use of the n-word.   Those ignorant of the book might even label Twain a racist without understanding that what Twain was writing back in 1885—a white boy sharing a raft and a life’s journey with a black man who serves as a surrogate father—was quite progressive in 1885.

Flash forward 130 years later, and people wish to denigrate Twain’s legacy.  However, he was not living in the 20th or 21st century.

This weekend the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington, D.C. with artifacts about Bill Cosby including a note about the current sexual accusations against the entertainer.

Some people wanted all mention of Cosby to be expunged from the museum.

If he is convicted, should he be wiped out of history?

Evidently there are not enough legitimate issues for the San Francisco School Board to grapple with, allowing them the luxury to raise issues that do nothing but put their district in the news for the wrong reasons.

Ask students what they want from their school and changing the name of it probably does not appear on their to-do list.

Mr. Haney and others like him should cease the high and mighty posture and stop altering with what people did before they were born.  That’s not their job.

Let’s hope removing George Washington’s name from the history books does not appear on the next school board meeting’s agenda.


Angelou U.S. Stamp Quotes Another Writer

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”   Screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck wrote this famous line for the John Ford directed 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

Such a sentiment was most recently on display when the United States Postal Service (USPS) unveiled its Maya Angelou stamp on Tuesday with First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey in attendance. On it is a quote: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Unfortunately, those are not Angelou’s words.

The Washington Post broke the story on Monday after contacting the correct author, children’s book writer Joan Walsh Anglund. Here is the original quote as it appeared in her 1967 collection of poetry “A Cup of Sun”: “A bird does not sing because he has an answer. He sings because he has a song.”

Besides the change in pronoun gender, the correct quote has proper punctuation; the USPS’s version requires either a semi-colon or period to avoid being a run-on sentence.

Google the quote and Anglund’s name nary surfaces with most sources including Brainyquote attributing the words to Angelou.

Before laying blame completely on the dubious USPS fact checkers, the misquote was often used when introducing Angelou at public appearances without a word of clarification by her, so admirers naturally assumed it was hers.

As a teacher who has his students study her works, I was hoping to discover an explanation why Angelou never cleared that up. As of yet, I have been unable to find a reason.

Another quotation controversy occurred in 2013 when the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. had to be revised less than two years after officially opening because one of the quotes inscribed was shortened resulting in a different connotation.

Here is what King said in a 1968 sermon:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other things will not matter.”

Here is what was originally inscribed on the memorial:

“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

Among the critics who took umbrage with the abbreviated version was none other than Maya Angelou.

I had a similar experience happen to me. When the College Board released a report on the teaching profession in 2006, a large quote appeared on the front page attributed to a former IBM CEO.   Except that he never said those words.

The quote came from my book, The $100,000 Teacher, verbatim without a single modified word. I guess quoting an executive from a large corporation carried more gravitas than a classroom teacher even though the subject was teaching and not computers.

No telling if the USPS plans on correcting its mistake or at the very least offering a public apology to the 89-year-old writer who has taken the high road with her graciousness about the blunder, telling the Post “I love her [Angelou] and all she’s done.”

The whole brouhaha could have been avoided in the first place if instead of using a 16-word quote that is not even her own, the postal folks selected the title from one of her best known poems that also embodies Angelou: Phenomenal Woman.

Phenomenal Woman: Maya Angelou

This fall when my students study I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings it won’t be the same due to the passing of Maya Angelou last week.

Just as we all have to deal with the death of loved ones as we live our lives, an English teacher has to deal with the death of writers whose work inspires life lessons in the classroom.  When you teach literature for a quarter of a century, you’re bound to go through some grieving.

I had several former students come by my room to make sure that I knew of Maya Angelou’s death, almost to share in the common grief.  

What also eased my sense of loss was the framed note hanging on the wall behind my classroom desk.

A few years back during a unit I regularly teach on tolerance which includes Angelou’s first memoir Caged Bird, her poems, and a documentary with Bill Moyers, I suggested that my students write letters to the author to let her know how much her work has meant to them.   They were expressionless at first, the thought to contact a writer never crossing their minds.

So, the students wrote, the letters were sent, and soon a reply came.

“It is a wonderful feeling to know that my words have touched you and your students,” Dr. Maya Angelou wrote.  

The kids were ecstatic that such a renowned literary figure took the time to read their letters and write back.  I’m so glad my students did that while she was still living.  How reassuring it must have been for her to know how her writing about racism during the Great Depression affected 21st century teenagers.

When teaching a highly regarded literary work, there is something special knowing that the author is still alive, that a reader could make contact with the soul behind the words.

It’s rewarding to introduce students to Elie Wiesel’s Night, a memoir of his Holocaust experiences, and for them to discover YouTube videos of him speaking today at age 85.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s 88-year-old Harper Lee continues to live with her 102-year-old sister Alice in a nursing home in Alabama.

However, teaching Fahrenheit 451 hasn’t felt the same since Ray Bradbury passed away two years ago.

Also framed on my classroom wall is a signed letter from Robert Mulligan, director of the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird” based on Lee’s classic novel.   I asked my students to write him after we spent a good deal of time analyzing the movie.  

Two weeks later an envelope arrived.

“I was truly touched by their letters and I ask you to tell them how grateful I am for their kind, thoughtful, and intelligent thoughts,” he wrote.   The students were thrilled.   Eighteen months later, Mr. Mulligan died.  

I use these examples to show my students why it is important to reach out and contact people that have made a difference in their lives, and not to let the moment pass without letting them know.   You never know who may respond. 

Writers have no idea how a reader responds to their words unless they receive feedback since writing and reading are both solitary activities.   Sending a note of thanks is a form of charity, “paying it forward” in today’s vernacular.  

True, an artist’s work lives on past his lifetime, but how much more meaningful it is having that artist living amongst us and being able to make a connection.