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History lessons, from Silent Sam to blackface

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One of the biggest temptations, and traps, for historians and apparently politicians is for them to judge one time period as though it were now, not to understand but to condemn it. North Carolina just had such a moment with the Silent Sam controversy in Chapel Hill, and now Virginians are seeing red over blackface.

The statue of a young Confederate soldier honoring the UNC students who fought and died for North Carolina in the Civil War had been on the Chapel Hill campus for about a hundred years until it was toppled from its pedestal last year by angry demonstrators and the pedestal removed last month by the outgoing UNC chancellor Carol Folt while university governors dithered over what to do about it.

For the dominant white citizens who erected it and their descendants, the statue was a tribute to the very real sacrifice of those who fought for their state at a time when slavery existed and passions over the war were not simply about its rightness. To black citizens, and later to whites and others who sympathized with their pain, the statue and other reminders of the Confederacy were — and are — offensive reminders of their former servitude and diminishment as human beings. It hurts them to see their oppressors glorified in any way.

The recent revelation that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both once appeared in blackface in their youth has sparked similar indignation and calls for their resignation. Northam acknowledged that he blacked his face to dress up as pop singer Michael Jackson. Herring said he wore darkened his face as a 19-year-old student to dress like rappers he listened to at the time.

Their political troubles have been complicated by the separate sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. One woman has accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000 while they were students at Duke. Another woman has accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He has denied both accusations and called for full investigations. The difference between Fairfax and the other two politicians is that he is being accused of real crimes, not just of being offensive.

Northam and Herring are not planning to resign as of now, though they have both apologized for wearing blackface. Their governor’s admission has been considered less sincere because he first confessed, then denied, that a 1984 picture of a student in blackface in his medical school yearbook was actually of him.

I wade into this controversy because the two politicians are being judged in 2019 by modern standards for their behavior in the 1980s when wearing blackface was not uncommon for entertainment. I don’t think condemning them is fair.

Today, growing racial diversity and sensitivity has helped American culture come to recognize that the practice of whites wearing blackface for musical or comedic entertainment is hurtful to black citizens who feel they are being mocked and belittled. But I’m not convinced that the two white boys imitating black entertainers were meaning to mock them, and the racist background of blackface was less appreciated by whites almost 40 years ago.

In 1982, filmmaker Paul Wagner and folklorist Steve Zeitlin of the Smithsonian came to Bailey to make a movie about the old-time medicine shows once popular in America. They had assembled a group of elderly entertainers who had been in the medicine shows in the early part of the 20th century and recreated in Bailey a medicine show for them to perform in one last time. The movie they produced, “Free Show Tonite,” was shown on UNC-TV and remains available for viewing on the internet.

Blackface was a big part of the medicine and minstrel shows popular of the time, and several of the performers in the Bailey show wore blackface. They were a big hit with their audience then, which included white and black Bailey residents, and the interviews that were filmed of them show the innocence of the performers’ intentions.

I assisted with the movie production at the time and attended the two shows. They were great, and Bailey residents were proud of the movie produced in their town. I watched it again this week, reliving the memories.

But while it is appropriate that we in 2019 realize the wrongness of blackface, we also need to cut our past — and ourselves — some slack. We need to acknowledge that we can grow and be reconciled.

We have to face our history and learn from it, but people change. And polls show the black citizens of Virginia overwhelmingly do not want their leaders to resign. They care about what their leaders think and do now rather than what they did in their youth.

We need to start learning from history and not beating ourselves up over it. That’s true for both North Carolina and Virginia.

Ken Ripley is a resident of Spring Hope and The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.

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