Many have called for the resignation of Governor Ralph Northam. I am torn. I am not ashamed to say I am conflicted. I understand the pain and horror of the African Americans who call for his resignation as they internally quiver from the “memories” that pour forth from their DNA. I understand the embarrassment of some Caucasians as they are reminded of this shameful and foul aspect of our joint American history. I understand the democrats who are embarrassed that one of their own has been outed as participating in this despicable racist act. Though the story is still evolving, all agree it is outrageous that a 25 year old college educated man, whether it was Northam or another young man, was willingly photographed in a KKK uniform, and the yearbook editors found it fit to publish. I understand the outrage and silent glee of some Republicans who act appalled at this Democrat’s deeds. For some of them, it is almost a breath of fresh air, as their party is consistently blasted and reprimanded by Democrats and others for not fumigating the racist stench from their midst. The twenty-first century has seen the Republican Party tarnished by its silence and seeming acceptance of the racist attitudes and bigotry of party members.
I am a historian and I know the roots of coonery, coons, blackface and all of its racist underpinnings. I understand the pain and have witnessed the scars of this vile, mostly cloistered element of American history. My parents and my 13 aunts and uncles were victimized by Jim Crow and all of its stench. I am the daughter of southerners, and I grew up in the north during the great migration.
I am not detached from the heart-wrenching pain. I have listened to and read the stories. I have visited the museums and studied the unconscionable acts of many Americans who were born and lived through the early to mid-twentieth century. It is real. There are many elders Black and White who have haunting memories of this pre and post-Civil Rights era. If one were born in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s, the stories of “Bombingham, Alabama” or The Ghosts of Mississippi are as close as yesterday.
At first, it is surprising to think that Northam who admired Michael Jackson (and probably listened to the many Jackson Five hits when he was a child), knew how to Moonwalk, and assuredly watched the videos and had in his music collection Michael Jackson’s declaration that “We Are The World” and “It does not matter if one is “Black or White,” would be caught in an act of blatant racism. Initially, it may seem bewildering that in 1984 a school yearbook or a college educated man would not understand or be sensitive to the fact that blackface or dressing as a member of the KKK was insensitive and morally despicable. Yet, Reverend Al Sharpton advises that the 1980s was not an era of innocence where racism was in the past. He reminds us (and Jermaine Jackson’s memoir, You Are Not Alone, confirms) that throughout The Jacksons record-breaking Victory tour the family was confronted by racism and death threats. The truth is that some of us need to look in our attics.
There is justified fury and indignation; however, it is time to pause and be honest. For the majority of Americans who are Christian and are led by the words of Jesus, remember that Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Can any White American with roots in this country honestly say that he nor any of his loved ones never participated in an act that would in the present day be considered racist, horrific or embarrassing? In the words of Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?”
Can any Black American with roots in this country say that he has not been in the presence of, supported or voted for a candidate that he knew in his heart was a racist? Do the holier-than-thou Democrats know the history of their party or remember that prior to the 1960s their party was the home of the KKK? Did the racism in the party suddenly dissipate with the Civil Rights Act? Did all of the racist Democrats suddenly seek redemption and ask for forgiveness from Black folks, following in the footsteps of Governor George Wallace? How many of the outraged Republicans or Democrats have read or reviewed James’s Allen’s Without Sanctuary? Is it possible that a beloved grandparent, older sibling, aunt or uncle is pictured in a book which has vivid photographs of public lynchings where the onlookers are enjoying the occasion?
Governor Northam is only four years younger than I and one year older than my sister. He went to school in the South. I went to school in the North and had WASP, Italian, and Jewish classmates. Northam is said to have had Black classmates. If the truth be told, during this period, it was not common for young people to discuss race and racism with people who were not within their race. The politics of racism was relevant, but it was not a central theme in a conversation with one’s white classmates. It was not until I was in my late 20s that I engaged in conversations about race with white and Jewish people. It was not until 2011 that I had a conversation with a professor who admitted her grandparents did not like her liberal attitudes and had ties to the KKK. She was honest. Her integrity was refreshing. I respected her for it, and I think she was somewhat relieved to confess her family’s past to a Black person who believes: Let he who judges be judged.
Today, no one will deny the actions by the Governor, or his classmates are reprehensible. If he is not the person in the picture, then his admission of wearing Blackface to represent Michael Jackson shows that he was either unbelievably ignorant or simply racist. He admits that though it was the 1980s, the times were different and things which are today unacceptable were the norm in his world. This is the truth and is evidenced by the images in his yearbook.
White people: Be outraged, but Check your attic. Check your memories and relationships with people of color. As governor Northam, what you or a loved one may have considered having fun or a joke may have been a blatant act of racism. Maybe, you have a clean record. However, how would you feel if one of your parents was outed for at minimum insensitive, vile racist behavior? Black people: I know you are weary. The continuous onslaught of subtle and open racism is burdensome. The constant denials or suggestions that you are over sensitive because “He is not a racist,” is taxing. There must be balance; yet, I know that when you smell racism seeping from one’s core or dripping from the heart of colleagues, it is unnerving. When the ignorant try to sanitize an American past that is quilted with a history whom most want to deny, bury or minimalize, it is difficult to pray your way through it as your ancestors. “We” forgave” Governor Wallace whose filmed record of racial brutality spoke for itself. This governor has no such record. Should he be forgiven? Does his record of public service or his policies shed light on his heart or is his alleged sorrow convenient? I am conflicted.
I say to all who have American roots what is in your closet? What is in your attic? Can your past deeds tolerate the media light? At what point does one forgive? Can one who is a bigot or a racist serve “We the People,” and when “We the People” have an elected official guilty of an ignorant belief system, should he be asked to resign? Is one ever released from the burden of deplorable belief systems?
Governor, you made some African Americans question their trust of their white friends, wondering if they have friends or colleagues who are hiding something in their closets. Your conflicting statements, your understandable inability to admit your circle of friends included die-hard racists, your poor explanation of why you were referred to as “Coon man,” made you lose credibility in the eyes of all who could see behind the mask. If the truth be told, your admiration of Michael Jackson, your ability to do the Moonwalk, your apology and acknowledgement that blackface was - is horrific, your conversation with your African American friend Seth does not reduce the disdain that many African Americans feel when they see your face or hear the pain in your voice.
My fellow Americans: Let us talk about race. Let us talk about sexism, homophobia, and all forms of bigotry. Let us not pretend this ugly past has disappeared with the election of an African American President or a diverse Congress. Let us not pretend that we do not have family members or friends who, at some point in their lives, exhibited prejudice in some form or fashion which by today’s standards would be unacceptable. Who among us can say he or she has not been in the presence of someone who has said shameful things or made jokes about another ethnicity, homosexuals or another religion and sat quietly, not wanting to create conflict? It is an uncomfortable conversation. It is hard. It can be embarrassing for some and very painful for others. We cannot allow racist deeds to be ignored and minimized or be led by those who do not recognize the error of their ways. Yet, it is time we not throw away everyone who asks to be forgiven for that which he is sincerely ashamed. Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.
Glenda R. Taylor, Ph.D. is a cultural critic, poet, and the author of Corridors of Genius: Excavating The Consciousness, Creative Process, and Artistry of Michael Jackson.