I stumbled on this image yesterday and it wrecked me.
It was posted by Julie Carey, a political reporter and the NBC4 bureau chief for Northern Virginia. “This photo illustrates how overwhelming the chaos is right now at Virginia’s Capitol,” she tweeted.
It shows Virginia State Senator Louise Lucas leaning against a car, tipped at the waist, her purse in one hand, cradling her head in the other. She looks very much like a beloved auntie temporarily rocked by a wave of grief.
Lucas was trying to catch her breath while surrounded by reporters “looking for comment on the latest disclosure that [Attorney General Mark] Herring wore blackface once in college.”
To me, the photo perfectly sums up this painful moment in time.
Not the pain of the now three state executives who find themselves in serious professional jeopardy – the Virginia governor and his attorney general for their admissions of wearing blackface, and the lieutenant governor facing serious allegations of sexual assault. Instead, I imagine the exhaustion of the citizens of their state, along with the millions of others who are now re-living our ugly history and worrying about the potential blind spots in their leaders.
It’s interesting that blackface, which was a beloved form of mass entertainment for decades, has suddenly become a bright line that cannot be crossed.
“It was always about making a mockery of black folks and dehumanizing them,” Duke University’s Mark Anthony Neal explained to host Yamiche Alcindor on PBS News Hour.
The optics, of course, are terrible. “People react so vehemently about it [because] there is no real defense of it as any type of legitimate art. It is completely racist and we all know it to be so,” Vann Newkirk of The Atlantic said on the same program.
And now there are real consequences: Social media makes it easier for relics of the past to bubble up and be amplified, opening up the conversation to millions of people who do not find the practice funny or nostalgic.
Expect more pictures, more conversation.
Yesterday, Colin Campbell, editor of the NC Insider, which covers government affairs in North Carolina, tweeted a photo that turned into a must-read thread.
“Randomly flipped through the 1979 UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook today just to kill some time, and found this photo on one of the fraternities’ pages,” he said. “Holy shit.”
Indeed. It was an image of a festive mock-hanging, complete with two hooded Klansmen and a hapless pledge (I assume) in blackface. There were plenty of offensive images, and the mini-maelstrom the post created forced UNC system interim president Bill Roper to comment publicly. “That’s a horrific part of our past, one that I think has no place then or now in our university system.”
It’s not hard to imagine the quivering anxiety of leaders these days, worried about photo-evidence of racism long forgotten, preparing to reach for their own fevered foreheads in the hopes that they can find higher ground. “This is not who I am, this is not who we are,” as the refrains go.
And then: Can’t we move on? Are we expected to talk about blackface and minstrelsy, race and reconciliation, when there is so much work to be done?
Sadly, old yearbook pictures are not a distraction from the work. They are the work. The fact that these issues keep tumbling into public consciousness even as political weapons is not just a sign of a cynical system, but of a perpetually postponed reckoning, a long, unpaid tax.
And yet, I remain comforted by The Warmth of Other Suns author Isabel Wilkerson’s sage advice to raceAhead readers – that the only way forward is through courageously confronting the past. Difficult issues are gateways, she believes.
“These are opportunities for anyone who is doing this [diversity and inclusion] work – and it’s really important work and I admire it – to consider how history impacts the people they want to include. And themselves, as well. Without that – a deep understanding – they will look at a situation and not be able to understand what they’re seeing.” Parsing the past with a sense of empathy for others is a good place to start.
And so, the lion’s share of my sympathies goes to the Senator Lucas’s of the world, the enterprising employee resource group members, the diversity professionals, and everyone from allies to token hires who continue to clear their throats and point to the gateways. It’s exhausting, necessary, and fraught with risk, and so much easier if you don’t have to go it alone.
This column is dedicated to my many cousins in the AAIB. I see you.
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|Tanisha C. Ford|
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