Saved by other people’s scandals that are worse than his own, Ralph Northam won’t have to resign as governor of Virginia. He should, though, after that disturbing picture of what many say is Northam in blackface was found on his page of his medical school yearbook. I’ll get around to why he should resign in a moment. First, let me relate a story.
I appeared in blackface once.
It was 1960 or so, and I was a Cub Scout. My den mother was my own mother, and she fancied herself a theatrical producer. We boys performed sketches from time to time, using the stage of my elementary-school auditorium. Mom had seen vaudeville dying, and she was certain that its minstrel shows would never be seen again. She knew how offensive they were to African Americans, and why. She also thought the shows were a tradition of popular entertainment to which her young charges deserved one-time exposure, so she produced one.
So Mom was an irredeemable racist, right? Not so fast. She was a product of her time and place, having been reared in 1920s and ‘30s Arkansas. But she was also, always, a quiet rebel on the omnipresent issue of race. Her own mother, an immigrant from Norway, was appalled at the treatment of Black folk when the family moved from Iowa to Arkansas and she began to observe the plight of a permanent underclass. Mom asked her if there hadn’t been some oppressed underclass in the old country. “No!” she said, “of course not.” Then again, her mother would call the Laplanders “dirty.” Mom found that hilariously hypocritical.
Mom paid our Black household help when our up-and-down finances would allow it, and she paid more than the appallingly low customary wages — and accepted the social abuse from white neighbors and relatives that came from doing so. Near the end of her life, Mom played the lottery, hoping she could win hundreds of millions, all to be used somehow to help her African-American neighbors. Her children, she told us, could work for a bit of the money by running her educational foundation for Black students. Poor herself for most of her long life, she was acutely aware of the enormous advantages she had enjoyed simply because her skin was not Black. She hated the Ku Klux Klan and everything it stood for. She was no racist.
What is a racist, then? The best answer I’ve ever had came to me around the time that Northam was prancing about as a shoe-polish Michael Jackson. Living in Memphis, TN, I was talking to a banker, the fattest of cats, and he accused the mayor at the time, Wyeth Chandler, of being a racist. I asked him what that meant. “I guess…” the banker said. “I mean, he’s more racist than I am.” What he really meant was that he was trying to help, whereas Chandler was in a position of power and doing the opposite.
So, is this a defense of my mother’s minstrel show? No. Not even of her doing it in part because she loved the Black music that was central to it. She would never have put it on if any Black people were to be exposed to it, so putting it on at all was a mistake in judgment. She was more Edith Bunker than Archie, but she would boast of having “Jewed down” a merchant’s price without the least awareness of what that meant or how terrible a thing it was to say. For these and many other offenses, in today’s light, lots of folk would call her a dyed-in-the-wool racist. She was, in fact, deeply committed to equality for people of color, for women, for gay people, for immigrants of all kinds. She was not sophisticated. For all the offensive things she said, I do not exercise the arrogance of forgiving her because I think there is nothing to forgive. Like many millions of people in our society, Mom was less aware than she might have been of the acid in her words. The caustic material was produced somewhere other than in her own heart. I know this.
You may be wondering by now how all of this is not a defense of Gov. Northam, who in 1984 appeared in blackface, and whose yearbook page included not only a photograph of one young man in blackface, but another young man in a Klan robe. Here are the critical differences, at least in my own mind:
First, Northam was reared in the South, too, but in the 1960s and ‘70s. The 40 years of difference between his upbringing and my mother’s included a period of immense social change. It was called the civil rights movement, and its lessons for young people were hard to escape, but Northam somehow managed to elude at least some of them. This is clear, given that he, at the very least, allowed a photo with blackface to represent him in his yearbook.
Second, my mother had a high-school education and all the deprivations of a life of poverty and incessant, brutally difficult, utterly unappreciated work. Northam was highly educated and exposed to every opportunity to learn the nuanced sensitivities of his times before he ran for the highest political office of a state in which a fifth of whose population is descended from Black slaves.
Third, Northam’s initial, stumbling appearances after the blackface scandal broke showed a kind of innocence. Not that he was innocent of the offense, but rather that he proved to be a clueless, Barney Fife character, still unaware that he had done anything to which people might take exception. He behaved as though he’d done nothing wrong, and then as if it all had happened in the innocence of his youth. Had he recognized immediately how toxic his behavior had been, perhaps it could have been forgiven.
Then there’s this: the Democratic Party derives what strength as it has primarily from young people, from people of color, and from women. The young have no understanding of the complexity of race relations in the South, and no tolerance for transgressions of a somewhat cryptic but increasingly strict code of language and behavior. People of color and women have found not just their collective voice, but their time of power, and there is an element of vengeance in their attitude. The tide is irresistible, and a purge is underway. The future will look a great deal more like Stacey Abrams than Ralph Northam. This is happening because it must happen. It is, in fact, overdue.
When the dust settles — which will perhaps not be until we are all a medium beige — peace will come. For my own part, I am deeply weary of the struggle. Wiping out racism in the foreseeable future is not a realistic goal. Understanding it, even trying to deal honestly with my own feelings, is hard enough. I have no taste for a fight.
Ain’t gawn study war no more.