Will the United States ever escape its racist history? Some people naively imagined that the election of Obama would do it. But since Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, liberal voices insist that every visible wound be dramatically exposed and publicly cauterized. Might this treatment inflame rather than heal? That’s a question now left to conservatives.
Actually, beyond partisan outlooks, life on the ground reflects a slow and painful effort to redress the national sin—small accomplishments along with improbable lapses.
For example: on President’s Day weekend in the middle of Black History Month, the pastor’s letter in our church bulletin noted two important birthdays, Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). Both were cited as men who loosened the shackles of slavery. Throughout February, the local classical radio station featured not only Scott Joplin’s well-known “Maple Leaf Rag” but nineteen other pieces by the black composer, including excerpts from his opera Treemonisha. The music of Florence Price, composer of symphonies, chamber music, and choral works was featured, as was the remarkable life of classical and jazz pianist and singer Hazel Scott. In the chitchat of music buffs, I discovered that George Gershwin insisted that the star roles of Porgy and Bess were to be reserved for black singers. Okay, small potatoes, and nothing like the grand gestures of the Oscars, but evidence of how Black History month has succeeded in its purpose: to celebrate black Americans, and to remind us of our racist history.
At the same time, however, old yearbook photos of people in blackface, white boys in MAGA caps, flaming headlines, and indignant newscasters highlighted the complicated terrain of our racist present. In January, there were headlines about a photo from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook said to be of Ralph Northam, the newly elected governor of Virginia. Was it he in blackface standing with someone in a Ku Klux Klan getup? In 1984! Two decades after the civil-rights movement! Oddly, not as much was made of the white-sheeted Klansman. Governor Northam belatedly denied it was he in the photo, but admitted to wearing blackface for a dance contest in which he imitated Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Suddenly Dixie politicians were preemptively confessing to having committed blackface before any more photos emerged.