Why Does a Sign in Richmond Say 'Understand Slavery'? | WTF | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Why Does a Sign in Richmond Say 'Understand Slavery'?

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Kenyon Livak - PHOTOS:  KEN PICARD
  • photos: ken picard
  • Kenyon Livak

About two miles south of Route 2 in Richmond, along the winding dirt Kenyon Road, a hand-painted sign appears nailed to a tree beside an unfinished teepee. Its cryptic message reads: "Understand slavery."

As Vermont hasn't permitted slavery since its days as an independent republic — the 1777 constitution specifically outlawed the practice — one can presume the sign isn't meant to be taken literally. But to which metaphorical form of indentured servitude does it refer? Slavery to taxes? Slavery to wage inequalities resulting from race or gender? Slavery to fashion? WTF?

As a reporter discovered last week, while the sign was inspired in part by recent stories published in Seven Days, the history behind it goes back decades. In fact, "Understand slavery" is just the latest roadside communiqué from a lifelong Richmond resident who has few other means of communicating with the outside world.

Kenyon Livak is a soft-spoken 65-year-old with squinty, slate-blue eyes, a brush of salt-and-pepper hair, and a mouthful of deeply worn teeth that hint at his hardscrabble upbringing. Livak lives alone with four cats in a double-wide trailer on a well-tended lot just west of Richmond's Chamberlin Hill. Though a red-and white banner at the end of his driveway identifies his place as Algonquin Farm, Livak said he no longer works the three-acre farm, as his parents and grandparents did for decades.

Instead, Livak is a self-described "jack-of-all-trades" who picks up odd jobs when he can. He doesn't own a phone, a car or a computer. His only means of transportation, other than his feet, are two bicycles, which he rides about four miles each way to the nearest grocery store.

Livak admitted he doesn't receive many guests anymore — "I do have three or four [people] who check in kind of regular just to make sure I'm still upright," he said. But he happily pulled up a chair on his front deck to explain to an unscheduled visitor the meaning of his sign out front.

The sign on Kenyon Road - PHOTOS:  KEN PICARD
  • photos: ken picard
  • The sign on Kenyon Road

The slavery to which Livak's sign refers is that of opiate addiction. He painted the message several months ago, he explained, after reading stories in Seven Days about all the Vermonters who've died of drug overdoses. Some he claimed to have known personally.

"It kind of hit me hard. Wow! It's happening all over again," Livak said. "It kind of freaks me out."

Livak's own struggle with opiate addiction began when he was in his twenties, working as a carpenter, and took a bad fall on a job site. For about six months, he recalled, he ignored a serious back injury, until the pain became unbearable and a doctor wrote him a prescription for Darvocet. The painkiller also proved helpful for his teeth, which he said have ached most of his life.

"I don't want to get into details, but I had enough [pain meds] for three months, so I could do enough to get my pain [to go] away, and then some," Livak recalled. "It was the 'and then some' that got me into trouble."

Livak began self-medicating, he said, and soon felt like "a walking cadaver." In the meantime, he watched several friends die of heroin overdoses, many of whom, he said, had come from abusive or neglectful households.

It took him years, but eventually Livak got clean. His recovery involved walking a lot in the woods and playing his guitar, often while lying on his back because sitting up was too painful.

One inspiration for his sobriety, he noted, was Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."

"'Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.' I sing that every night," Livak said. "Only we ourselves can free our minds."

The "Understand slavery" sign in front of his house is just the latest addition to what Livak calls his roadside "art gallery." For years, he's been posting signs whose meanings were equally opaque.

"One said, 'I believe in angels.' Another one said, 'David and Goliath.' People did not like that," he added, referring to the latter sign. "They thought I was pointing a finger at the military. People would [drive by and] shake their fists ... so I took it down."

Another sign read, "Food before taxes." Livak said he painted that one before his family's estate was settled, when he was living on $20 a week. At the time, he claimed, he was paying the town thousands in property taxes.

"I don't mean to gripe about it, but there are a lot of older people who struggle and can't make ends meet, so what do they do? They short themselves on the basics," he said. "People gave me respect for that sign."

How does Livak stay clean and sober these days? He still walks in the woods, he said. He writes letters, paints and builds his own guitars by hand; one features an inlaid mother-of-pearl lark in the fretboard. Livak even decorated one wall of his trailer with blueprints for old Martin guitars.

And, of course, he tries to think up more creative messages for passersby.

"I know I'm going to rub half the people the wrong way, because they're going to take it the wrong way," Livak said. "But you still got to get out and sing your song, don't you think?"


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