Vanderbilt NAACP Gets Artist to Redo 'Racist' Mural of Football Coach

Vanderbilt NAACP Gets Artist to Redo 'Racist' Mural of Football Coach

A painting of new Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason will be redone after the NAACP chapter at Vanderbilt University thought the original depiction subjugated blacks because it was reminiscent of the racist imagery found in minstrel shows. 

After James Franklin left Vanderbilt for Penn State, Vanderbilt hired Mason, the former Stanford University defensive coordinator who is considered one of the game’s rising stars. Soon after, Vanderbilt fan Fant Smith paid $2,500 to local muralist Michael Cooper for the painting. 

Cooper, the artist, said he has been painting on the mural for 22 years and this was the first time he was unable to meet the coach before doing his artwork. Instead, he went on a photograph that Vanderbilt athletics sent him. 

Akailah Harris, the president of the Vanderbilt chapter of the NAACP, emphasized that “there was never once any thought in my mind that he did this on purpose. But the problem is not understanding American history, because it’s not just a black history issue.”

Nonetheless, she said the mural harkened back to racial stereotypes that denigrates blacks. 

“We realized it was reminiscent of the minstrelsy era in which black people’s skin was darkened and their lips were made whiter in order to exaggerate their race in order to put them in a sharp contrast with the white race,” she said, according to the Tennessean. “In the mural, his skin is black, not brown, and his lips are white. It doesn’t look like him.”

The Vanderbilt NAACP started the petition after Cooper did not respond after they reached out on two occasions. According to the Tennessean, Vanderbilt does not own the Verizon building where the murals are painted. 

Mason said that though he did not “believe the painting is representative of me, personally,” he he understood that “if that’s somebody’s depiction, then so be it.”

“There are still freedoms that are still allowed in this country, but when I look at it, I don’t think that’s an accurate depiction of me,” he said.

Vanderbilt quarterback Josh Grady said the painting was “unacceptable” and “urged students and fans to sign the petition”:

This petition concerns the newly painted image of Derek Mason on the corner of West End and 28th avenue. While we are thankful for your company’s willingness to house this mural and happy that Vanderbilt is the only SEC school in history to hire two Black head football coaches, we find this portrait problematic. The image is drawn in a way that is reminiscent of racist Black caricatures from the past. His lips are whitened, his skin is darkened, and his eyes have a yellowish tint, features that are synonymous with racist imagery of the 20th century.

We do not believe that this was done purposely or with malicious intent. However, we do think this painting strongly resembles how harmful Black images have been portrayed in the past. The visual imagery of one of the most prominent African-American figures at Vanderbilt University should not resemble an archetype meant to further subjugate African-Americans. This sends the wrong message to African-American students on campus about how they are viewed by the community at large. Whether intentional or unintentional, images like these have real consequences for the psyche of the African-American population at Vanderbilt. These well-documented consequences include diminished self-concept, lower self-esteem, and unhealthy attitudes towards those from similar backgrounds. As a cutting edge leader in today’s modern world, we think that Verizon should not be propagating the imagery of racism. We are calling on Verizon Wireless to have the mural changed so that it is not evocative of caricatures from the Jim Crow era. We look forward to hearing back from you.

Photo Credit: Tennessean