“Does anyone know what this painting is about?,” the docent asks our group. I am at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum standing with my daughter’s eighth grade class in front of John Gast’s painting, “American Progress.” The kids are responding to it like they are spotting Ke$ha at the 7/11 – this painting is totally famous among California middle schoolers – at least among those who paid attention during their American Expansionism unit in social studies.
Hands shoot up and the answer comes in a chorus; “Manifest Destiny!” We have seen covered wagons and mining tools and a huge, rigged bank scale that once weighed nuggets drawn from California riverbeds during the Gold Rush. The docent giving the tour tells us that the scales were rigged. That might have surprised a 49-er, but not the 99%-ers assembled before the exhibit.
I have come along as a chaperone on this field trip to the Autry because all the other New West parents are down at City Hall, representing the school at the final hearing for the conditional use permit that would allow New West Charter Middle School to open a high school in the fall. I have attended a couple of these hearings, and had even testified passionately before Councilman Bill Rosenhdahl and his development panel on behalf of the school. But today I couldn’t face the naked animosity of the neighbors who glare at us from their side of the aisle. New West is the enemy. They see us as a threat to the ‘hood, stealing their street parking, dirtying their untrammeled sidewalks with the wads of gum and candy wrappers that seem to slough off of adolescents wherever they go. They don’t want us disturbing their peace with our unruly, entitled teenagers. So instead I stand with those teenagers in quiet awe before “American Progress.”
The problem is, I can’t take my eyes off the docent, a raven-haired woman of a certain age with a beatnik vibe and a zesty teal manicure. I know I know her.
“Is your name Erika?” the docent asks out of the blue, looking at me.
“Yes,” I say, riffling through my mental Rolodex for a name, or even a place for this woman.
“I’m Suzanne Lummis, we met at Beyond Baroque.” Ah yes, of course, we know each other from the literary world, and here we are, completely out of context at the Autry. “I do this as a side thing,” she explains, almost apologetically, as though moonlighting in a museum might damage her good reputation as a poet and noir maven. It’s one of those classic moments, when Los Angeles, in spite of its sprawl, feels like a small town.
Suzanne turns back to the painting and breaks down its semiotics for us. The painting was commissioned, reproduced and widely circulated as an engraving in 1845 as part of a propaganda campaign encouraging settlers to move west. The image depicts “Columbia” a blonde babe in a white gown floating over the American landscape.
Columbia is a smokin’ hot allegory for American progress. She hovers over the plain with an Angelina Jolie-like leg vamping from the slit in her white skirt; her bodice clinging tenuously to her left breast -- wardrobe malfunction is but one stiff breeze away. On her brow is the “Star of Empire.” She clutches a schoolbook in her right hand and trails telegraph wire behind her with her left, symbolizing the education and communication that expansionism would bring to the West. The picture is allegory for the symbolism-impaired, an easy-reader in entitlement. Just in case you missed the message, Gast bathed the white settlers in golden light and left the western edge of the painting shrouded in murky darkness where native peoples and animals skulk off, banished from the landscape forever.
Suzanne hits this angle hard, making sure the students assembled fully appreciate the double-edged sword that Manifest Destiny wielded upon the West.
I remember that Suzanne’s grandfather was Charles Lummis, the eccentric, colorful poet and journalist who trekked on foot from Cincinnati to Los Angeles forty years after Gast painted this image. He was expanding westward for a gig at the Los Angeles Times. On his way Lummis bagged a coyote, fell in love with the Southwest and picked up a pair of fancily fringed buckskin jeggings. By the time he sashayed into to Los Angeles, he was already something of a celebrity.
Charles Lummis became a passionate Indian rights activist who inveighed against Indian schools. Suzanne clearly inherited her grandfather’s passion and poetry and I find it extraordinary that she is here, keeping his message alive for another generation of school children.
Suzanne pulls two, large sepia photographs from her tote bag. The first shows a group of Native American boys and girls, dressed in tribal attire, their glossy hair hanging in long braids. The second picture is of the same children, shorn of their braids and dressed in school uniforms. The native children’s faces, proud in the first photo, look stunned and vacant in the second.
Suzanne asks the kids how they might feel if they were made to cut their hair and wear uniforms. New West is a uniform school, and these kids know firsthand the indignity of the polo shirt. They think they can relate and they nod sympathetically, taking notes on crumpled index cards.
When the tour is over we all head outside to eat lunch and let the kids gambol on the lawn. I lie back on the grass, listening to them play, basking in the golden sunlight that, according to Gast’s painting, white people brought to this land a hundred and sixty-seven years ago.
History, for better or worse, is wrought by the ambitions of those with a sense of entitlement. It is what brought us to this moment in time, outside a museum that is largely funded by Wells Fargo, the same outfit that was so instrumental in carving out the West, and tipping the scales toward expansion and assimilation.
Our final lesson in Manifest Destiny comes via text message from a parent down at City Hall: we have gotten our expansion permit. New West Charter will open its new high school in the fall. This is how the west was won.