Editor’s Note: Forgive me in advance, I’m a long form essayist.
Virginia, We Need to Talk About Racial Reconciliation
I’m watching the Ralph Northam blackface controversy with as much shame, revulsion, and incredulity as anyone. As a Virginian, and as I claim, the #1 lover of Virginia, perhaps even more so.
Having reflected deeply upon it, I can’t help but wade in to the muck of it all with my mind squarely set on making a case for true right and for true justice, in all its pain and glory.
On that note, Ralph Northam shouldn’t resign.
What we’re facing in Virginia is the overdue need for racial justice and racial reconciliation writ large, our own version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
And in that context, what one man did 35 years ago as a drunken med school student, even if he’s now governor, is but a drop in a much larger bucket of who we are as Virginians, and what we will do together as a polity to right past wrongs and realize a new path forward.
Yes, we need to contend with Northam’s blackface incidence(s) on a personal level (for him and for Mark Herring and for all the others who did the same or participated in some way in the same). These elected officials must speak deeply into the situation and listen. Blackface itself should be widely explored in this and publicly dissected to get its context and associations more broadly understood.
But what we need more is a plan for tackling the larger and more substantive evidence of racial injustice. From there we can take intentional steps toward racial reconciliation and, with a higher mind, strive to heal a scarred state, a scarred nation, a scarred people.
That’s what this is really about, Virginia.
I Don’t Give a Hoot About Saving Northam
While I voted for Northam I’ll say I did so without any real enthusiasm and frankly with some revulsion — on my key issues, energy policy, environmental stewardship and resource management, he fails to impress when he doesn’t actually make me sick.
As a supporter of fracked gas pipelines under any number of totally bogus rationalizations, he’s just the same old pablum schlock of “all of the above,” and “Virginians need the energy” blather. He’s certainly no daily champion for a rapid transition to the clean energy economy we need now. Just another Dominionite, really.
So I don’t get my needs met much with government either, leaving Northam with no special hold for me. But that’s a different essay for a different day.
Today we’re face deep in shoe polish in a comic entr’acte of history repeating as farce. And it’s gotta stop.
Know this: Even though I don’t know the whole context of the Northam Blackface Affair, like, what a bunch of 25-year-olds were thinking that day — or not — I do not harbor the least approval of the hostile realm of historic blackface minstrelsy, a topic I learned more about last year in a lecture at the Frontier Culture Museum given by Chinua Akimaro Thelwell of the College of William and Mary.
Thelwell’s “Minstrel Shows: The Many Faces of Thomas Dartmouth Rice,” offered different narratives on the origins and nature of blackface minstrelsy (from hateful to benign) and called it the most popular form of entertainment in 19th century America after 1830. That’s a huge influence on our culture both overt and hidden.
Thelwell even said to contact him if we know of a case of blackface as he documents them to put together as much of the story as he can. So I bet he’s all over the Northam story like white on rice!
“Jump Jim Crow”
Blackface Minstrelsy has a decided history and yet, given its pervasiveness and one-time popularity, it is still, in many ways, unknown to people.
Like so much history, people have their pieces and parts that they put together and believe is the thing. Since the full picture isn’t there, much misunderstanding can come out of blackface appearing in everyday life, whether past or present.
And that’s where we are in Virginia’s Northam moment.
For my part, where blackface minstrelsy has had seriously harmful effects (the case with most blackface), to the best of my limited ability as a white person, I wholly stand with black Americans with the utmost compassion and empathy. With heartfelt fraternal allegiance I recognize the compounding legacy of scars and unresolved tensions of our racially fraught national and state history. I see and care that racial disparity has arisen in law, culture, economy, social organization, as entertainment, access, ownership, educational opportunities, and WAY more.
I sympathize, and I stand for justice and equality for all Virginians with the full force of my soul and with all good faith. I also see how much there is to learn from our black citizens to appreciate the complexity of the black American experience even more.
Entitled to a Defense
But I cannot condone either knee-jerk reactionary politics as a counterpoint to democracy (the ballot box), nor can I let pass when the rule of law is undermined for the temporary relief of lingering pain without there being a remedy that excises the real disease.
Sure, Northam and Herring can resign, ousted by a rapid-fire public outcry. Or if not, be ousted through machinations in the legislature…possibly.
And sure, we can argue that “should Northam survive,” he’s so weakened that he would ONLY be ineffective in governance if not patently harmful to the Democrats in subsequent races; so for this alone he should go.
But all that still falls within a shortsighted pathology of revenge or panic politics. Ditch the guy, problem solved.
Worse, this stance gets caught in the mire of a presentist misreading of history, culture, and community and then acts on those misconceptions as if they’re inherently right, true, and good without taking into account any form of the bigger picture or how to get to more fundamental and meaningful change.
In the end, resignation alone will remain palliative; a balm but not a cure.
Sadly, if Northam resigns today, it will be no more safe in Virginia tomorrow to drive while black, to shop while black, to walk with a white child while black, or to wear a hoodie while black.
The temptation to see removal from office over a 35-year-old non-crime as a true act of racial justice and resolution is illusory. The present spanking the past isn’t justice. It’s just a spanking.
And, because a lot more jobs would likely go down and Virginian lives and Virginia thrown into chaos if Northam departs over the blackface yearbook incident, him leaving could actually end up as an injustice for a lot of innocent bystanders. Further, there’s no guarantee that whatever alternative presents will be the healthiest one.
It’s chaos as compass, but a gamble that two wrongs will make a right.
No Booty Shot Statute of Limitations
Had Northam committed a crime by appearing in blackface in ’84 — unlikely due to the stunning breadth of freedom of speech enshrined in our phenomenal Bill of Rights — he would have, long before now, paid his debt to society with the record behind him, maybe expunged due to the misdemeanor extent of the crime or to a statute of limitations.
Now we want payback forever.
Perhaps in the monstrous age of Trump, where passions are stirred and seldom bedded back down, we want resolution in the span of a tweet, for the world to turn on the immediate gratification of “text 1619 to vote Northam off the island.” We salivate for the perp walk.
And if that’s all we got, it’s crap. That’s our national focal point? Our collective gaze? At the screen of now, nOW, NOW?! At the alter of an untethered mob? In thrall to every day’s new hot mess?
It’s a crap departure from grace for an already imperfect people.
From Then to Now
Americans started a nation from scratch with a combination of amazingly innovative ideas and some super shitty ones — like slavery, the unwelcoming of free blacks, the slaughter of indians, the exclusion of poor white men from suffrage, and the coverture of women. All of which have, or are, coming home to roost — or are coming home to roost again in new scars from old wounds.
The nation evolves, or at least it heaves.
But Northam’s resignation won’t solve any of it. Nor Herring’s. Nor will the failure to seat Fairfax, which would, in some senses, initially read as a kind of ironic justice.
Making someone pay, revenge for hurt feelings, for decades and centuries of pain, however strong the urge, and however seemingly fitting the fix, fails to dig deep enough to address what will only come up again and again — that we are a racially divided nation with racially divided roots and horrific racially inflicted wounds and a crazy racially tinged legacy and patent institutionalized racial divides and maddeningly unresolved racial tensions that live into the present moment with likely as much potency as any time in our nearly 250-year-old actual national history and reaching back to our 400 + year-old colonial history.
Ralph Northam can’t be the whipping boy for that any more than Robert E. Lee or George Washington can. A symbolic takedown is only like scratching an itch or feeding an addiction that will return with just as many demands tomorrow. It is not, itself, worth more than the five minutes bow out speech it would be before being forgotten by ADHD Nation in the next 24-hour news cycle.
It. Will. Solve. Nothing.
It. Will. Heal. Nothing.
In all likelihood, resignation will actually prove harmful as we go further down the path of dropping emotional grenades of unequal worth and merit into any situation because the value of “disruption” and collective swarming are treated as worthy values in themselves, while the harder work of deeper cultural, political, social, and economic progress gets blotted out by the static.
Come Back to the Five and Dime Enlightenment, Enlightenment
We missed our opportunity in 1776 to exact a full revolution of human “freedom” and human equality. Team 1776 fell woefully short of what we, in 2019, believe we would have done to make a Benetton-perfect world back then, looking as we are through our 21st century eyes.
But that doesn’t mean they did nefarious wrong, as in malice aforethought. Their compromises and choices were governed by a million and one factors inherent to their historic moment, out of which much immediate and subsequent good has come.
And now we are in ours. Our historic moment.
Which path will we take?
Will we look back to the 1980s — again, a very different historic moment to ours today — and argue that effectively the entire generation is unfit because they should have understood with as much expansive certainty as we think we do today that “blackface minstrelsy” (if that’s what Northam’s was) was always wrong in every time and every place?
Hogwash. Higher minds must prevail. There is no such reality as “in every time and place.”
But there is stubbornness.
It’s tough to get into the innards of blackface minstrelsy and carve any delineations between it and other versions of wearing a black face. It’s tough because a combination of inexpert opinion and a cultural mood of heightened racial sensitivity act to quash most meaningful dialog.
Instead, in the face of a blackface event we expect an apology, and then flagellation and shameful exits from public life. Put that on repeat ad nauseum.
Thelwell’s view was more tempered. He shared that one narrative on blackface minstrelsy argues that the burlesque has as its original intent mocking, degradation, and humiliation of blacks. This is the most prevalent narrative and is rooted in significant historic evidence. Yet he argues that another narrative saw blackface as sometimes performed affectionately, perhaps even as an homage, albeit tinged with likely blindspots. Maybe it was all of these things and more. Who knows? We can gaze at history, but always just outside it.
Right now, whether in spirit or in the nature of the very lineage of blackface as inherently about racial abuse, the popular conversation over Northam has concluded that any form of donning black makeup must necessarily have been or be fully wedded to the hostile intent narrative, or always about white supremacy.
No homage is possible in this view. No appreciation allowed. No admiration of the figure in question considered a conceivable performance origin. Donning blackface in and of itself, in this view, is just decided hate and emotional violence and and an act of white-supremacy laced intimidation and a betrayal, whether known to the person doing it or not.
It’s a tough spot because from there, no man once there, can grow. No man forgiven.
Hence apologies and excoriations follow from the appearance of any blackface minstrelsy from today or the seeming recent past. Disavowal and distancing come out to play for those who don’t want to get damaged in the fallout.
But where are we going with this at the end of the day?
I’m not arguing that blackface minstrelsy doesn’t or can’t feel so harming that it deserves a reckoning — almost an eye for an eye it seems. But I am arguing that just because something feels a certain way, doesn’t mean that the remedy to the feeling is what you think, or that the remedy is readily apparent.
Anyway, as a society, we must choose the highest path possible, of which rashness isn’t. Nor are entrenched positions with no room for compromise.
The Road Less Traveled
Even if we accept that blackface in any and all forms past or present should be fully verboten on the basis of contemporary social norms and being alive to racial sensitivity and working in the effort of an emotional restorative justice, still, bringing down a duly elected governor on the basis of his behavior in blackface as a med school student almost half a century ago seems like a mismatch.
But more upsetting to me is that it fails to fully grasp and then create our historic moment in its richest potential.
We risk expanding racial wounds, and adding to the casualties of a not fully knowable past, while calcifying myriad other problems along the way — such as will anyone ever be eligible for leadership and office and business roles in the future after all of the millennials and gen-whatever-nextes have archived on the Internet for an unforgiving forever their semi-nudes and crotch shots and party daze and gang signs and duck lips and immature opinions?
Rather than a gleeful lunching on heads rolling, our historic moment calls for a full reckoning of Virginia’s racially fraught past and our wounded present.
The moment calls for visiting history, understanding history, laying it out there, seeing it, measuring the distance from one horrific iteration of racial injustice to another, and measuring how far we’ve come.
The moment calls for defining where we need to get to for our citizens to feel reconciliation. And more importantly, it calls for defining which policies need to be in place for true equality and justice to live under Virginia law (and as a new original model, under US law).
That’s restorative justice. That lays open a civic path for racial reconciliation.
America remains a marvel for us to make in the form we want. We need dialog, not scapegoats.
Statewide Emergency Workshops
While South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission may harbor some imperfections, still, it is miles ahead of anything we have ever undertaken as a nation, or as states or localities, to wrestle publicly and together with the fearsome scars, and worse, the institutionalized disparities, at the heart of our racially-charged culture.
I can’t speak to what needs to be done everywhere, but in Virginia here’s what needs to happen.
Northam should apologize again and publicly account to the core of his being with that moment from his past. While doing so I propose that he call for a form of a statewide truth and reconciliation program, on Virginia’s terms.
It should be robust, and lead by the best, bringing in the strongest Virginia minds and others that are working on racial reconciliation, peacemaking, moderation, policymaking, and constructive dialog.
A planned week-long conference should be held including citizens, municipal leaders, state leaders, academics, advisors, and others. It should be crafted using the most influential and forward thinking non-racists and their preferred methodology for structural and social advances. Starting with Ibram X. Kendi may be a launch pad on resources. And of course, Thelwell.
To make this 21st-century accessible throughout the state, localities should be called on to mirror the process at scale. Smaller groups, satellite locations, and various organizations, should be able to access it online or get resources for running their own versions. It should take over Virginia for a week with every citizen involved who cares to be in it, school kids, too.
All efforts at safety, non-violence, and inclusion (yes, that means from the harshest racist views held by anyone) should be part of the effort to broker progress.
Ultimately the major goals should be:
- A top to bottom review of state policies, allocations, and judicial equality with an aim to unearth institutionalized racist policies that create an uneven playing field arrayed against blacks and to correct them under law across the state and localities.
- To philosophically re-address the notion of human worth, dignity, and respect in a shared citizenship realm and to foster humane progress wherever possible on that front.
- To nurture an interest in and appreciation for the local human experience as seen through the microcosm of Virginia history and being Virginians together today. This means all history is Virginian and American history. Black history IS Virginian and American history.
- To build back into our society a slower, more thoughtful process of civic dialog where there’s no place for revenge, or false justice, but rather an aim toward using our full faculties of intelligence, compassion, and perspective as we strive to reignite an era of enlightenment philosophy.
- To care for one another in civic mindedness as one people, one polity.
Or a Statewide Emergency
If Northam resigns, the moment for those goals is likely past. Even if we had a process in place for my plan for racial reconciliation, it would likely be subsumed by the chaos created in the wake of Northam’s departure mixed with the earthquakes erupting around Fairfax and Herring. Disruption for disruption’s sake would reign supreme.
Instead, it’s time for leaders and citizens of all kinds to walk back their furious demands for immediate resignation, and dial back their over-weaning condemnations that betray an appalling presentism, and refute offers of only short term or weak-minded approaches to our Virginian and American tumult.
Northam’s burbling past can act as a momentary flashpoint on which to feast on a devilishly delightful public fall or it can act as a catalyst to that long overdue truth and reconciliation that’s needed now more than ever.
If Northam has the confidence, this is his to carry. It is not unlike a cross. It is not unlike a bow. It is not unlike a gift.
For the Love of Virginia!
All this is happening in my native Virginia, my beloved home. I weep and yet, like so many things, I see that this is really a gift of enormous proportions, a hand outstretched by God. What goodness might come from this? Let us dwell there.
Social change is slow. Has been in Virginia.
Political and legislative change is often even more so. Talk to Thomas Jefferson about what it’s like to have your anti-slave trade bills rejected in the Virginia House. Talk to him about how to unravel that knot at that time with those people and how to stay afloat with the issues that matter to you in the face of overwhelming opposition.
Cultural weights, like blackface, also forge a drag on progress unless we can use them as a sail instead.
And then our ignorance of history wraps chains around us as forcefully as the physical chains of a cruel past.
But where we are now in Virginia, with the Northam blackface story to contend with, is that we need a way forward that conquers the power of our tweet-frenzied broadcasting paradigm, and tempers our freedom of speech with the cultural value of the responsibility of speech, and moreover, our role in the democratic process beyond the vote, such as lobbying for change.
We need patience. We need compassion. We need perspective. We need our better angels.
As in most essays I write, I am often quite out of step with my society. Sadly, superficial analyses, trigger-happy responses, one-upmanship, and disruption for disruption’s sake have become the values of the people we are.
I can’t see that it makes anyone happy, or experience a more meaningful life because of these approaches. But undoubtedly it makes people feel in control in a time where technological and informational change happens at a pace that outstrips human comprehension and digestion.
My take is that that paradigm has jumped the shark. That it’s unworthy of us both as a people and as a one-time beacon to the world.
So we’ve got some work to do. It doesn’t take a genius to see that that work won’t be addressed by resignations and fists thumping onto table tops in a righteous demand for pseudo-justice.
It’s time to do it right once and for all. (And then we can have an important talk about the NORTH.)
— Lindsay Curren, Ordinary American