For Ralph Northam and Virginia, this could be a teachable moment

February 13, 2019 Bill Sizemore 0 Comments

Here’s an op-ed I wrote for my old paper, The Virginian-Pilot, about Virginia’s current unpleasantness:


I feel Gov. Ralph Northam’s pain.

As a fellow native Virginian with deep Southern roots, the governor’s travails over a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page cut a little too close to the bone for me.

Like him, I am a descendant of slave owners. And like him, I grew up in a small Virginia town where racism – slavery’s toxic legacy – was as pervasive as the air we breathed.

I wrote a book about my family’s slave-owning history – which I only discovered late in life – and about my struggle to come to terms with it. In the book, I cite a series of anecdotes illustrating the racist mindset of the segregated all-white cocoon in which I grew up.

For example, I tell the story of the time my father took me to a minstrel show at the local high school in which white men – pillars of the all-white Baptist church I attended – put on blackface and engaged in exaggerated caricatures of African-Americans for laughs. A young child at the time, I was oblivious to the pain that such displays caused African-Americans. Looking back on it today makes me cringe.

That was in the 1950s. The governor’s yearbook photo was published in the 1980s, when he was a 24-year-old medical student. And now we learn that Attorney General Mark Herring, too, donned blackface to portray a rapper at a party when he was a 19-year-old undergraduate, also in the 1980s. Moreover, The Virginian-Pilot reported Thursday that Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment edited a yearbook at Virginia Military Institute in the late 1960s that was full of racist photos and slurs, including blackface.

Incredibly, blackface displays have shown a stubborn persistence into the 21st century. There’s been a spate of media reports about blackface parties, photos and videos emanating from college fraternities and sororities all over the country in the past five years.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed and a forthcoming book, Princeton historian Rhae Lynn Barnes explains how blackface minstrelsy was a hugely popular form of entertainment all over the United States for more than a century, nowhere more than in Virginia. Barnes points out that the University of Virginia yearbook “Corks & Curls” – still its name today – took its inspiration from the burned cork that minstrel performers used to blacken their faces and the curly black wigs they wore on stage.

None of this excuses Gov. Northam’s appearance in his yearbook photo – if in fact he is one of the two young men in the picture, one in blackface and one in Ku Klux Klan garb. He now says he is not. If that turns out to be the case, I would suggest that the widespread calls for his resignation might have been premature.

He does admit blackening his face to portray Michael Jackson in a dance contest that same year, which strikes me as a somewhat less egregious offense. That revelation, it should be noted, probably would never have come to light if the governor hadn’t brought it up himself. The incident seems roughly analogous to Herring’s blackface moment – to which Herring, too, confessed voluntarily.

But whether or not any of them is forced out of office over an act of stupidity and racial insensitivity decades ago, I believe this affair affords Northam, Herring and Norment a golden opportunity to lead a much-needed conversation about racism and white privilege. This could be a teachable moment for Virginia and the country.

In my book, I tell how I sought out the present-day descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved. They and I have had many deep and frank discussions about our painful shared history. We have become good friends.

I suggest we should follow the example set by South Africa after the collapse of its apartheid system: a truth and reconciliation commission to expose and acknowledge our racist history and work toward forgiveness and healing.

Examining my own family’s role in slavery and its legacy was cathartic. I believe the same could be true for my state and nation.


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