The mask that the actor wears is apt to become his face. — Plato
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam admits to wearing Michael Jackson blackface in a talent show. Northam rationalizes his behavior by stating that he only applied “a little bit of shoe polish” under his eyes. How can an informed, sophisticated leader rationalize this behavior from the 1980s?
In the 19th century, blackface minstrels portrayed black archetypes by darkening their skin and exaggerating their lips with white paint. The archetypes included: “Black Buck,” a large foreboding man who lusted after white women; “Jezebel,” a devious wench; “Uncle Tom,” a gentle older man (whose image is used to market Uncle Ben’s rice); and Mammy, a kind but sassy woman (used in marketing Aunt Jemima pancakes).
The most egregious and impactful use of blackface occurred in the film “Birth of a Nation.” Considered a classic film, it depicted whites in blackface as savages who were attempting to take over America. Their efforts were thwarted by noble members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was organized to protect Aryan women and Aryan culture from degradation, violence and defilement. The film sparked riots and attacks on innocent African-Americans across the nation. It popularized the Klan as a patriotic force.
Blackface framed how African-Americans were viewed in the 19th and 20th centuries. African-Americans were considered dim-witted, criminal and lascivious. They were “simianized” in words and disgusting imagery. They were considered ape-like in appearance and behavior. This practice continues. Barack and Michelle Obama, Venus and Serena Williams, Valerie Jarret, Patrick Ewing and others have been depicted with simian features.
Given this sordid history, it is difficult to see how Northam — Virginia native-son and governor — could be unaware of the hatred undergirding blackface. Nonetheless, Americans are a forgiving people. Virginians might have forgiven Northam if he had come forward to own his sin. Instead he issued and later recanted a bizarre but standard nonapology apology.
Northam’s strategy failed because it was insincere and ill-advised. However, there was a path to redemption. Northam should have focused on the opening verse of “Amazing Grace:”
Amazing grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I am found
Was blind but now I see
Northam was literally blinded by the privilege his white race and male gender provided in Virginia. He was blind because privilege robbed him of his vision. On a certain level, Northam is a “victim” of birth and circumstance. However, many privileged individuals evolve to develop understanding and empathy.
Northam could have found forgiveness and received salvation inside the institutionalized black church. After the incident was exposed, he should have immediately requested permission to address a historic black church. The pastor and congregants would have welcomed him because, in church parlance, Northam was requesting a “come-to-Jesus” meeting.
A come-to-Jesus meeting occurs when a sinner honestly and authentically embraces his sins before the congregation. Public confession is painful because the sinner admits weakness and even evil for all to see. Reckoning hurts, but it is a positive and powerful form of cleansing.
Imagine the symbolism if Virginia’s most powerful politician addressed a black congregation as a plaintive supplicant. A Son of the Confederacy would seek forgiveness from the descendants of slaves. This meeting would have promoted healing and reconciliation. It also might have saved Ralph Northam.