Saturday, February 09, 2019

Looking Before Leaping Still Pays in 2019


On Friday, February 1, Virginia's blackface scandal dropped on the Governor's Mansion (pictured above) like a bomb from the sky. On social media the calls for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign erupted so quickly it almost suggested that some of those expressing their outrage had been poised to pounce.

To those demanding Northam's departure from the Governor's Mansion, immediately, it seemed the existence of the now infamous photograph of two costumed people posing – one in blackface, the other in a white-robed, masked KKK get-up – was sufficient to close the book on Northam's term in office. No need to hear the governor's explanation.

To make matters worse, on Saturday afternoon Gov. Northam stood before the gathered press to awkwardly withdraw a significant aspect of what had been his Friday night apology. Without fully explaining why he had originally admitted to being one of the two pictured in the 1984 photo, he claimed he had determined (through a tortured process) that he had been wrong to say he was in that snapshot ... because he wasn't.

When Northam went on to volunteer that in 1984 he had indeed painted his face black for a dance contest costume in Texas, well, it did little to rescue the moment for him. Watching that bizarre presser was simultaneously stunning and laughable. To say the governor's panic-driven alibi strained credulity is an understatement.

Looking at all-star photographer Jay Paul's telling photos of the reactions in the room, it seemed even the jaded working press was aghast. Afterward, there were way more questions than there had been before Northam steeped before the microphones. Therefore, at that point, man oh man, I was sure Northam's goose was cooked.

Now I have to say maybe I was wrong. Furthermore, maybe a lot of us in Virginia should stop rushing to pronounce our judgments cooked up by Facebook feeding frenzies.

Democrats who had seemed rather delighted with the prospect of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax ascending to the governor's position were then sucker-punched by the sexual assault charge that surfaced against him. Those who wondered, what the hell could be next? got their answer in the form of Atty. Gen. Mark Herring's bewildering and somewhat tardy admission that he'd worn a blackface costume in his college days.

For me, that was when it all began to feel surreal. Then came another charge against Fairfax from a second woman. This time it was rape. With that thickening of the plot, it seemed Fairfax might turn out to be the first big shot Democratic politician to walk the plank.

Meanwhile, a week later, it's looking like Northam is still determined to try to ride it out. At least he hasn't been charged with a crime. One thing for sure, there's no template, no playbook, to guide him or any of us.

So who knows? Crazy as it might sound, once the dust settles maybe we'll be in a better place. How could that be?

Maybe by then we'll have learned more about the racism in Virginia (and elsewhere) that's still festering below the surface. The racism that, by habit, too many white people conveniently ignore. I know I've thought more about the cruelty of blackface than ever before. Seeing its shameful place in the Jim Crow era, rather than dwelling on its strange place – fetishistic? – in show business history, was edifying for me. Maybe for others, too.

On top of that, we Virginians may also have caught an instructive glimpse of what might be wrought by living angry and outraged all the time, with zero tolerance and no sense of proportionality.

Obviously, we need to hear the plain truth from these office holders, ASAP. Let's see what additional background information emerges and let's see how each of them handles his own fitness crisis. At this point, I'll withhold my demands. Instead, I'll try to use what I've learned to see each development more clearly for what it is in its context.

Bottom line: Yes, dear reader, it still pays to look before leaping.

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