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“Everyone Loves a Parade!,” a mural by Pierre Hardy, at the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington.

Voices / Viewpoint

‘It is what it is, but it ain’t what it seems!’

Public and commercial art should reflect the rich cultural history of Vermont

Curtiss Reed Jr., L.H.D. serves as executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity, where he has developed the Vermont African American Heritage Trail and has championed diversity and representation in the state’s tourism outreach advertising and promotions.

Brattleboro

When controversy surfaced within our family or in the neighborhood, Mama Bea, my great aunt, was fond of saying, “It is what it is, but it ain’t what it seems!”

When I first saw the “Everyone Loves a Parade!” mural on Burlington’s Church Street, my first response as a black man was, “Where are my people?” However, as I examined the mural in greater detail and saw the logos of area businesses, my thoughts shifted to “Oh, this is a piece of commercial art.”

As someone who is knowledgeable about Vermont’s African-American history and whose mission is to make Vermont an exceptional destination for all, particularly folks of color, my bifurcated afterthought was 1) maybe the artist or those commissioning the work were unaware of Vermont’s African-American history and 2) maybe the sponsors were unaware that folks of color are consumers and that we are more likely to become clients of businesses where our faces are reflected in their advertising.

On the one hand, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary, my default position tries not to attack people for not knowing what they do not know.

“It is what it is...”: White supremacy tries to suppress knowledge about Vermont’s black history.

“It is what it is...:” White supremacy has led many Vermont business owners to believe consumers of color are either nonexistent or not worth the advertising dollars.

On the other hand, because of my lived experience as a black man in a racialized society where my presence is undervalued, the sins of omission and misrepresentation evoke a powerful visceral negative response.

And sometimes that visceral response leads one to believe every White person without exception holds malicious intent.

In some instances, malicious intent is clearly present; however, experience has taught me that benign neglect borne from ignorance is the precipitating cause in the vast majority of cases. And it is my belief that “Everyone Loves a Parade!” falls into this latter category of benign neglect borne from ignorance.

* * *

Mama Bea would tap the false equivalence of malicious intent and benign neglect with “...but it ain’t what it seems.” She taught me how to distinguish between the two and would take me to task for not excoriating those with malicious intent as equally as she would take me to task for not educating those who fall into the category of benign neglect.

We work to position Burlington as the most desirable culturally diverse and international destination in northern New England. This objective will be advanced by public art and commercial art reflective of Vermont’s rich cultural history in general and Burlington’s distinctive history in particular.

The community discussion underway over public art in general, and the mural specifically, is an integral part of building an inclusive and economically vibrant destination for residents and visitors alike.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #446 (Wednesday, February 14, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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