Sometimes events of the day will stir memories long thought lost. When I was a child, my dad belonged to the Christiansburg Kiwanis Club. Each year, they did a variety show as a fund-raising event, the Kiwanis Minstrel (later re-named the Kiwanis Follies). My dad had to be the world’s worst actor, with zero musical talent to go with it, but he still donned blackface and got on stage in the old CHS auditorium and fumbled through many one-liners and dialogue jokes, intended to lampoon African Americans, and likely politicians of the day. Maybe the actors’ ineptitude was part of the attraction, given that the cast included many of the town’s prominent citizens.
It says something about the era and 1960s Christiansburg that people attended and even evidently enjoyed these shows, eagerly anticipating them.
I remember asking dad as one upcoming season approached, and he informed me that they’d been discontinued, permanently. Why? “Some black people find them offensive,” he said, to the best of my ability to quote him now over 50 years later. Good enough to satisfy my teenage curiosity.
This comes back to me now as our state governor, Ralph Northam, and our Attorney General, Mark Herring, are finding themselves in trouble for being found to be, or admitting to be, participants in similar events, where they covered their faces in black shoe polish. I’m guessing most Virginians are doing some soul searching now, exploring our feelings about what even then was a disrespectful act, but in the bright light of the present is clearly much more so.
For my dad’s part, I’m sure his participation was an innocuous act of performing his club duties, as he, and my mom, were the least racist people I ever knew. Both thought all people were the same, created equal. I think part of that was that being Jewish, both felt the sting of all oppressed minorities, whether they were still oppressed or not. Henry Ford was a rabid anti-Semite, and my parents refused to ever buy a car made by his company, or anything made in Germany.
Sometimes I think I’m more sensitive to racism than my black friends. I asked my closest about this situation and she said, “Racism is preventing someone’s advancement because of race. Dressing up in blackface is disrespectful and might indicate racist tendencies. Is (Northam’s) track record on inclusiveness good? If so, this is a non-issue.”
Having better good sense than me, my dad never took a stab at politics. But I could envision that had he done so, someone could have easily found one of the old photos of him in blackface and excoriated him over it.
Coincidental to the current situation, my wife and I saw the movie The Green Book, where a black man and a white man traveled through the deep South together, the latter providing chauffeur service to the former. The name is from a publication that blacks used when they traveled which was their guide to restaurants and hotels that would accept them. In one scene, the black man is scheduled to perform for a gathered audience at an elegant all-white club and he is refused food service himself. It’s hard not to be angry that situations like that persisted a century after emancipation.
I think we run a risk when we judge people now by seemingly innocuous actions – but clearly weren’t – during another era. How will people decades in the future look back on our behavior now? Will we be scorned because we drove gasoline-powered cars and did little to stop global climate change? Because we ate red meat? Because we destroyed mountains to gain access to the coal below or laced the countryside with gas pipelines? Because we attended barbaric events like football games?
Speaking of football games, we all know that fans can be rabid. It’s not uncommon for fans of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Washington Redskins, or the Florida State Seminoles to wear feather headdresses, wave fake tomahawks, and yes, paint their faces in redface. Why do we consider blackface less acceptable, more worthy of scorn and derision, than redface, which is surely equally insulting? Certainly, most of us would conclude that they’re equally inappropriate. Physician, anthropologist and professor Paul Farmer said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
I suspect that neither Northam nor Herring will resign over this, and doubt that either will be removed, given that doing stupid stuff in college is not illegal. Hopefully the silver lining is that we’ll all be a bit more attuned to the sting of racism and committed to ending it in any way we can.
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.