(Photo by Phillip Danzig)

A group of students want to get rid of an apparently racist mural at Vermont Law School. They’ve voiced complaints that the mural depicts black people in a cartoonish, racially stereotypical manner and over-emphasizes white saviors’ importance in the underground railroad. Now generally, when I am not on the ground concerning issues like this, my pragmatic leaning is to support folks on the ground and fall in line, but…

1. It looks like a losing battle.

The school, unable to destroy or remove the artwork, has opted to cover up the mural. Unfortunately for them, Sam Kerson is suing them under the Visual Arts Right Act of 1990, which protects an artist’s stake in the display of their work. The likely claim will be that what the school is doing will in some way intentionally distort, mutilate, or modify his mural, impacting his honor or reputation.  The school’s response is that merely covering up the art will have no such impact on his work. This, to me, sounds like a schoolyard loophole. Every kid who’s stood in front of his babysitter’s sitcoms should know that obstructing artwork at minimum distorts one’s appreciation of it — I’ve personally made sure of that with several episodes of General Hospital. And imagine how the conversation would go over at Mr. Kerson’s local watering hole.

Some dude: Hey, heard about your mural.

Mr. Kerson: Yeah.

Some dude: Sure them covering it detrimentally impacted your honor or reputation.

Mr. Kerson: Yeah.

Some dude: Bummer.

2. It’s… not that bad?

Now I don’t know about you, but I love me some depictions of black rebellion. Hell, I’d even take pictures of white people rebelling on black folks’ behalf.  And, when I say this, know that I am a big fan of dunking on non-black folks’ hot takes on historical events and the tendency to recenter on whiteness when they create black art. But, can we be real for a moment? This mural is… pretty dope actually? The panels remind me of a surrealist artwork straight out of Haiti or Mexico. And yes, it is true that there is a panel where a group of black folks are huddled up with drums and jubilant; it is the same panel that appears to have a slave master hog tied at their feet. That sounds like a win to me! I have a degree in African and African American studies and I can count on my fingers the amount of times I’ve seen depictions of black insurrection against whites and slave masters. To be fair, I am not a mathematician and I have done my fair share of finger counting in non-art contexts, but the truth is I could knock the count off with one hand either way. With that said, this is not the only time I’ve seen complex depictions of black agency and freedom that have had their critics. My favorite example of this is a story in John Keene’s American Book Award-winning Counternarratives(affiliate link) that centers on a runaway slave named Zion that commits a bunch of crimes. Does it play with stereotypes at times? Yes. But it’s still a damned good slice of Americana, and it would be a shame to cower away from it by covering it up.

For what its worth, I do commend the students for caring enough to mobilize around a cause they care about. If I could make a suggestion, maybe focus more on the Virginia reparations bill?

Vermonters Find Reparations Work ‘Painful And Messy And Complicated’ [BurlingtonFreePress]
Debate Continues Over Vermont Law School’s Underground Railroad Murals That Black Students Call Racist [Taxprof Blog]

Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he moonlighted as a minor Memelord™ in the Facebook group Law School Memes for Edgy T14s. Before that, he wrote columns for an online magazine named The Muse Collaborative under the pen name Knehmo. He endured the great state of Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boatbuilder who cannot swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy, and humor, and has a love for cycling that occasionally annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at cwilliams@abovethelaw.com.

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