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It is 4:12 a.m. I can’t sleep because my conscience is unsettled. The mural, located in Chase, on the second floor, is being removed. As we are in a pandemic and racial unrest continues, American society is setting a dangerous trend. Should we remove entities such as murals, statutes, or any resemblance of oppression because people are offended? This inquiry requires an individual, not to run away from history, but to grasp the full meaning of what The Underground Railroad: Vermont and the Fugitive Slave by Sam Kerson represents. It begs audiences (students, faculty, staff, and guests) to confront our racist past.
The first panel depicts enslavement in Africa. The opening scene shows Africans forced into slavery and sent to America against their will. The second scene illustrates slavery, Africans sold to their white counterparts. The third scene expresses the inhumane conditions many Africans experienced under the auspices of white supremacy. The fourth scene invokes the resilience “symbolized by both physical rebellion and the resurgence of African culture via drums, masks [,] and costumes.” There is likely no doubt that these images are not disturbing, offensive, and inaccurate depictions of black people. However, that’s probably the point. It is an erroneous depiction of many who identify as black and/or African American, but it is still a part of our history. It should be a reminder of who we are, as a nation, how far we have come, and the work still ahead.
As a black person, having attended school in the South, when I walked up the stairs of Chase Center, I was inspired by the image—encouraged to know that everyday people within my racial group strive to rebuke those racist images in various ways. Attending law school is one example. The mural was not offensive but transformative. As the artist explains, it “celebrates the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice.” The mural is unapologetic and likely not intended to be a palpable image. It begs anyone who sees it to have conversations and to be uncomfortable. It is politically incorrect but authentic. It inaccurately depicts blacks, paints slave master’s green (likely intended to de-emphasize their importance), and centers on the black experience. The mural is and should be a reminder of our history. No matter how horrific or the feeling it insights, it is our history. We have to live with those images in our heads and remember them as we become lawyers and policymakers.
The trend of removing inherently racist entities from public view is dangerous. And the pressure to conform to public opinion is leading the way. How will other generations know about our past without attending a museum? History is not only within museums, but it’s all around us. On many college/university campuses across the United States. Again, should we remove all historical entities that “trigger” or “offend” people? For example, what about New York’s Statue of Liberty. She is a “living symbol of freedom around the world, and many view her everyday” (i.e., residents, tourists, onlookers, etc.). If people consider her imagine offensive, should we remove it too? Do you see the pattern? Our reaction to real and raw images, like the mural, should not be dismissed. Acting on emotions, guilt, and even pressure is a threat to our democracy and judgment. Think about the images you see every day that “offend” you, should it be removed too? The new cycle of emotionally charged historical erasure has begun.
Updated version posted at 1 p.m. on July 8, 2020 at the request of the author.
I am so sorry to hear of the removal of the mural of The Underground Railroad:Vermont and the Fugitive Slave. Every time I would ascend those stairs in the Library/Chase and see the mural, I would be reminded over and over again that my goal in becoming a lawyer was to work for the betterment of society, to improve the world and make it a better place, to correct the wrongs of the past and to use my education and training to do so. I’m grateful you wrote this opinion piece, Rico Edwards, and grateful the VLS Forum published your work. As an alum, I was unaware of the removal of the mural. It was a constant reminder of how horrible our history was and how important it was to learn from the wrongs of the past. I felt lucky to be attending law school and learning how to fight injustice. I still feel that way, but I don’t understand the removal of the mural.
Mr. Edwards, what do you think we can do about this? I am appalled that many have claimed the mural is a depiction of “white savior” ideals, rather than the joined efforts of black and white Americans to end slavery. The destructive narrative currently rippling across America is going to have major negative repercussions–you are so right in saying that history is not only in museums, it’s all around us, and attempting to erase that history to avoid offense is a risky proposition. I would stand with you in trying to preserve this work if you felt it was a cause worth pursuing. What can I do?