Chopping down the cherry tree: replacing the outdated George Washington pageant

By Maggie Sullivan, Opinions Editor

Edit, May 2020: This article was conceived and written before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the daily lives of Nashvillians. When Harpeth Hall returns to in-person classes, large assemblies may look very different. Though I stand by my argument, it is currently pertinent and crucial to address the impacts of the pandemic on Harpeth Hall before focusing on re-evaluating this tradition.

If you came to Harpeth Hall in middle school as I did, knowing little about its community and traditions, did you imagine that you’d be hitch-kicking, marching or dancing the minuet alongside your friends playing slaveholders?

GEORGE: 7th graders gather in their historical costumes for the George Washington Celebration in February 2020. Courtesy of Harpeth Hall.

More than any other tradition at this school, the George Washington “Celebration” (henceforth, “George”) is the one that, in the past, has gone unexamined by students. Mentions of possibly adding pants to the uniform or cap and gown at graduation will often cause a rousing conversation in any pod or lobby. But due to the Upper School’s distance from all the time and work that goes into George, the pageant is, to many upper school students, simply another assembly to sit through.

For our seventh graders, it is an opportunity to confront stage fright, wear era-appropriate costumes, and have the whole school appreciate their talents. But beyond the seventh grade, most students spend the pageant singing along to the patriotic hymns or observing whose costumes were theirs, and then leave it complaining about how their year, George was better. 

A recent change divided seventh-grade students into soldiers, sailors and speakers based on their P.E. classes instead of having them choose. This decision has minimized the problem of class time being overtaken by rehearsal, but has also made many students focus on the details or the quality of George, rather than on its overall message.

Because of its presentation as a pageant, representing history but not commenting on it, it is rare that students apply their critical thinking skills to what George means. I will gladly admit that until last fall, I wasn’t applying all the analysis I’d learned in eight years of history classes to this unusual tradition. The irony of this is astounding, considering that seventh graders take American history in the same year that they perform in an ahistorically trivialized pageant.

Other changes to George have attempted to update it, most notably the monologue given to Martha Washington, who remains the only female character to speak in an hour long show. However, pedantic alterations cannot change the implicit message of the pageant: that the white, male Founding Fathers are the figures that truly matter in retrospect. This message is clearly inconsistent with Harpeth Hall as it envisions itself today: a transformative, diverse institution seeking to empower women of the 21st century.

The time has come to focus on how we can replace George.

It is impossible to improve George without introducing metacommentary. Many of the men portrayed gladly participated in America’s cruelest institution and destroyed Native American communities to “nobly” establish this country. Their wives were rarely more than dance partners who had little voice in public spaces. Though notable exceptions exist to these generalizations, no such nuance could be conveyed without an introduction separate from the pageant’s setting, one that would undo the “positive spirit” of the occasion. It would no longer be its palatable self.

This is not analogous to the statues of Confederate leaders that pollute Southern parks, which can be given more context in a museum rather than being unequivocally glorified in a public place.  Because George is a pageant, not a historical account, it necessarily involves simplification and removal of nuance; this is unacceptable when it causes the pageant to only present the white male view of history.

While I hold these views strongly, I also have fond memories of everything George was to me as a seventh-grader. As a history student, I was eager to portray someone whose ideas we’d contemplated in class that year. As a white person, it was easy for me to enjoy the pageant’s portrayal of history without thought. As an actress, I memorized my speech quickly and enjoyed the honor of giving a portrait to Martha Washington.

I don’t want to deprive future seventh graders of that opportunity. My suggestion is to honor a different piece of American history – one to which Harpeth Hall has a much clearer connection: the vote to ratify the 19th amendment.

AWAITING RESULTS: Suffragists at the Capitol, as seen in the Tennessean‘s issue from the morning after the 19th Amendment vote. Courtesy of the TN State Archives

The 2020 Distinguished Alumna in Memoriam Anne Dallas Dudley, graduate of our predecessor school Ward Seminary, was an integral part of passing the amendment that granted women suffrage nationally. She was the president of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association; leading up to the crucial vote in 1920, she and thousands of other women across the country lobbied for equal citizenship rights regardless of gender.

The vote itself was a nail-biter, with 35 states on the side of women’s suffrage – one below the majority needed to pass a Constitutional amendment. It was down to Tennessee, specifically the House of Representatives right here in Nashville. A young representative crucially changed his vote (taking the advice of his mother) to support the amendment, breaking a tie. This dramatic event and its meaning for women would resonate at an all-girls school much more soundly than the nationalism of George.

AN EAGER WITNESS: Governor A.H. Roberts, in the presence of Charl Williams (a suffragist from Memphis), signs papers that certify Tennessee’s passing of the 19th Amendment. Williams was the Vice Chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee. Courtesy of the TN State Archives.

It is also crucial to recognize, as George does not, the role of black people, especially black women, in the women’s suffrage movement. It cannot be denied that voter suppression was a cruel reality for people of color, especially black people, and barred them from the ballot box. Many black women were excluded from participation in the movement by its white leaders, notably the accomplished journalist Ida B. Wells. Highlighting them emphasizes their part in a movement to increase freedom and justice, not their unnamed presence enslaved by the men who speak during George.

Whatever replaces George, it cannot present the unified white perspective that George does. Acknowledging race is necessary. It’s no secret that our school is majority-white, and many of the donors who support George’s existence are white as well. In a society where people of color are still systemically held back in so many ways, it is the responsibility of those with racial privilege to confront it; this responsibility does not just fall to those who feel the negative effects of their ignorance.

George is built to be palatable. Any change in the right direction will undoubtedly make people uncomfortable, but this is a discomfort that must be confronted if we want our school to represent forward progress. We can replace the nationalistic, unwavering “patriotism” of George with an understanding of America in all its faults, which questions the systems of oppression that benefited and were codified by our nation’s founders. There’s nothing more patriotic than that.

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