The debate on alleged blackface racism doesn’t allow for grey areas

Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, with his wife Pam during a news conference. Picture: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Three politicians in Virginia have brought a new meaning to the phrase “succession planning”. In addition, they have changed the harmless school year book into a ticking career timebomb, writes Terry Prone.

The first guy is Governor Ralph Northam, who confessed to wearing blackface in school. This meant he used burnt cork, back in the mid-1980s, to make himself look like an African-American, and right sorry he is for so doing. On the other hand, he says, he is definitely not the blacked-up white student in the picture in his school yearbook and standing beside another student dressed in Ku Klux Klan headgear. That’s someone else, and he isn’t resigning over it.

Now, maybe advanced facial-recognition technology could identify the photographed student in the hat, the bow tie, and the shiny black face, but that’s not the point. The point is that, when he believed it was him, Northam confirmed that he had worn blackface, apologised for it, and refused to resign over something he’d done decades before. Now, he says it isn’t him in the picture, and he’s still not resigning, despite much public clamour for him to do just that.

Which brings us to the line of succession. In theory, were Governor Northam to resign, into his place would seamlessly pop an African-American, Justin Fairfax. The problem about Fairfax is that he currently stands accused of rape and sexual assault by two women. However, even if Fairfax can’t accede to the governorship and replace Northam, Virginia doesn’t run out of succession candidates. If Fairfax is a busted flush, next in line is attorney general Mark Herring, a white-haired ambassadorial type who was one of the first to call for Northam’s resignation.

Except — bring on the minor key music — Herring has also had to out himself as having worn blackface in college. Which does suggest that the man, whatever about his pleasing appearance, might not have much of a strategic brain. Think about it.

The guy whose job you might get is accused of having blacked-up for a class yearbook. Strategic thinking might prompt you to ask yourself, “Any class yearbooks around showing me in blackface? Any contemporaries who might squeal about our happy formative years of black minstrelsy?”

Even the simplest common sense might have whispered a teeny, cautious doubt into Mr Herring’s head. Something along the lines of, “Maybe let’s not rain nasty stuff on Northam for using make-up to express a little racism, until we know for sure we didn’t do the same.” I would have thought that this isn’t something you’d forget doing, although so many college-going Virginians of a certain age seem to have been at it that maybe it was as forgettable as fads like hoola hoops or line dancing. Although, to be honest, some of us who tried both don’t forget it.

If hoola-hooping and line-dancing are that memorable, you have to figure these guys remember blacking-up. But, until the yearbooks surfaced, it seems to have slipped what we’ll euphemistically call their minds.

The moral, these guys must believe, is to search out and destroy all high-school yearbooks. I don’t know how significant school yearbooks are in Ireland now, but they were minor when I was growing up. The one I figured in mentioned, if I remember correctly, the fact that I was always on a diet (which the photograph demonstrated had failed) and owned a lot of high heels. How sad, I hear you say, that these should still be the abiding verities of my life. You may be right.

But, even though I was an aspiring actor, I never did myself up as another race. None of the barefoot bilge pot-boiler dramas the Abbey Theatre relied on at the time included a black character. And if there had been, anybody suggesting a search for a black actor to fill the role would have been looked on as barmy. Even if it required a ton of make-up and a ton and a half of suspended disbelief, a white actor was getting the job.

When Laurence Olivier blacked up to play Othello, he took the task so seriously that his make-up used to arrive in any room five minutes before he did, said his wife Vivien Leigh.

It never occurred to her, or to anyone else at the time, that a white man wearing black make-up onstage to play a member of another race was racist. Theatre was white then.

Therefore, playing a black man was just an extra challenge, just as playing a woman was a challenge to young male actors in Shakespeare’s time.

It never, ever worked the other way, and nobody ever questioned why this was. Nobody would have hired Paul Robeson, the great African-American singer, political activist and actor, to white up and play a Caucasian onstage. But it was acceptable for a white guy like Larry Olivier to let on to be a black guy, even though his classically Caucasian face structure made his make-up ridiculous.

The odd thing is that, even in Ireland, where for most of the 20th century the only black man you’d ever encounter would be a student on his way to the Royal College of Surgeons, blackface was a happy tradition.

John Major, the former UK prime minister, wrote about minstrelsy as an aspect of music hall in his wonderful book about his vaudevillian father.

The acts in which white performers dressed up as blacks rarely made much reference to the race caricatured. Retrospectively, we realise the offense was in the act itself and the ludicrous characteristics appended to the black characters.

A long-running TV hit based on the music hall tradition was The Black and White Minstrel Show, where about half the cast, for no good reason, was made up as black, wearing boaters and striped trousers while dancing. All down the east coast, Irish viewers who could access the BBC happily watched these shows; just as they watched Lyons Tea’s cute TV ads featuring animated black minstrels.

Talented black performers such as Lenny Henry took part in the Black and White Minstrel Show without a peep of protest. Why? Same reason that women subjected to sexual harassment signed up for silence. Same reason no black person objected, at the time, to Northam and Herring blacking-up. Because anything other than silent acquiescence would have cost them their jobs, their positions at university, or their reputations.

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