This week a photo popped up from the 1984 medical school yearbook page of Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam of two White classmates – one in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robes.
Gov. Northam initially said he was one of the young men in the picture, then quickly recanted and said he was mistaken. Then in a Saturday press conference he apologized anyway, noting the photo was offensive and racist but adding he himself had not looked at the yearbook in more than 30 years and that his memory was not entirely clear.
He then further added, or rather admitted, that the very same year – 1984 – he did indeed do blackface as Michael Jackson when he entered a dance contest in San Antonio. The governor, a medical school graduate whose yearbook nickname was Coon Man, was 25 years old at the time.
There have been many calls for the governor to step down but as of now he refuses, stating: I cannot in good conscience choose the path that would be easier for me to duck the responsibility to reconcile. Coincidentally, his lieutenant governor, the person who would replace him, is Justin Fairfax, a Black man. Both are Democrats.
Racist actions, racist jokes, and racism generally have no party affiliation, class distinction or sexual persuasion. On the other hand, given Electoral College POTUS’s statement of “…you had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” after the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. eighteen months ago and the proliferation of hate crimes across the country since by various white people shouting or wearing hats trumpeting Trump’s Republican clarion call of Make America Great Again, it is hard not to see this as otherwise.
This is particularly true when one watches news footage of the Charlottesville rally and takes in the anti-Semitic taunts (Jews will not replace us!), the proliferation of White males wielding torches, some in hoods and robes, and the death of one young woman there to protest these actions that was mowed down and murdered by a car driven through the crowd by one of those supremacists.
It almost makes you long for the days of Gov. Northam’s blackface.
Speaking of the mid-1980’s, here’s a story:
Around that time, I was invited to a Halloween party. I was close to Gov. Northam’s age and as such was also a bit enamored with performers whose look and talents I admired but could never measure up to in real life.
As an out gay guy I longed to do something outrageous but I was not yet ready to dress up as Liza Minnelli. Still, my sister had left her black sequined blazer in my hall closet and somehow I had asked her if it was okay to use it to play dress up. Being who she was (and I was), the answer was an immediate and overenthusiastic YES!!!!!!
But who to go as?? Sorry, Liza was (still) out because I was not THAT out. Yet. Though I’m not even sure I’m that out now, which I suppose is its own kind of self-loathing. But I was determined to use the jacket because, well, it was so, so… faaaabulous.
Wait, I have it, I thought. I’ll do….
Who?????, you millennials might say? Well, Billy Preston was a big pop star in the seventies and eighties that toured with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Little Richard, and had a series of hit records that included Nothing From Nothing, Will It Go Round in Circles and a duet with Syreeta Wright called With You (I’m Born Again).
Better yet, he wore sparkly jackets as loud and even louder than the one in my closet, had great hair (as I did at the time) was about my height and even rumored to be…gay!!!!
It was a no brainer. I was going to be Billy.
So being the gay that I am I did several pre-rehearsals of the outfit days before with the jacket. Only to get just the right pants, shirt and glasses to go with it. (Ahem) I gotta admit, it was pretty good. But something was not quite right. Hmmm. Well, maybe….the hair.
Billy Preston not only had good hair but was known for BIG hair. I mean, HUUUUUUGE. Like a ginormous Afro. I felt a little uncomfortable but this was my one chance to be comfortable being a little flamboyant. So I went to a costume store on Hollywood Boulevard and bought the biggest and cheapest Afro wig I could find. When I got home and put it on I gotta admit (once again), it and I looked….fabulous.
Still, on the night of the party, and me being the insecure gay that I was, um, am, I began thinking, I could do better. Looking in the mirror I saw this was really good but in my heart of hearts I knew this COULD BE….great!!!!
There was one basic physical difference between Billy and I, aside from our fingers’ ability to glide across the piano keys from one end to the other and, who was I kidding, it had to do with skin color. I bent down in the closet, below the full-length mirror, and opened a wooden box I kept inside with a carving of the insole of a shoe and spied a cornucopia of POLISH. Black, brown, taupe, white…No, it absolutely had to be Black!!!
And then….I STOPPED.
Um, Chair (Note: Not my name at the time but I’ve changed it to protect the guilty), what the hell are you doing??? Are you kidding??? You can’t!!!!
Still, I longed to go that extra yard, to make that difference. To be fabulous. And really, who would know? Just a handful of people at that party.
As I reached for the polish it was like the ghosts of every Black performer and person I ever knew slapped my hand down and gave me the stink eye.
I don’t think so, they collectively warned. You will NOT have that thrill. You CANNOT use this to get yourself off for five minutes and call it a day. You WILL not.
And so, I quickly closed the box, shamed I had ever thought about it. More than 30 years later I am ashamed, to this day. Only now I am actually appalled, so appalled I hesitated to recount this story.
We are all flawed and we ALL have our prejudices. Some are right out there, some are just below the surface and others are so deeply engrained that we still fail to this day, to even recognize them, much less cop to them.
But here’s the bottom line to the Northam argument:
You can have murderous thoughts – we all do from time to time in our lives. But that doesn’t make you a murderer.
You can also have racist instincts, sexist desires or homophobic leanings, but this will not make you any of those isms. Unless you ACT OUT on them.
And the good news is that even if you do ACT OUT there is hope. You can admit what you’ve done, take your lumps and chastisement, work to do better, go out of your way to make amends, and then remind yourself many times over in perpetuity that you will always NEED to do better in this area, and then pass on that message to others.
What makes you guilty, and one of the ISMS, is when you mumble and gurgle and squirm, twisting yourself into an amnesiac pretzel, all in the name of self-preservation.
If we’re to survive as a country of honest to goodness humans (Note: And so far the jury is out), we all need to rip the Band-Aid off and take our medicine before the collective We can get any better.
This doesn’t make me of any one of the rest of us much better than the Electoral College POTUS or Gov. Northam. Just more evolved and self-aware than we were when this all started. Which is at least a start in itself.
Billy Preston – “Nothing from Nothing”