Monday, February 04, 2019
"Let’s say you’re on your way to a dance contest in the early-to-mid 1980s in Texas, and you’re young, like mid-20s young, and you know you’ve got what it takes to win. You know this because you’re basically going to dance like Michael Jackson. You’ve seen “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” and like rest of the entire planet, you just kind of know.
Now it’s almost time to head out to this thing, and you’ve got a loose plan. You’re going to fling up your leg up like it’s a lit match to flick out, and make a tippy-toe statue of yourself, and do that move where you pull your hip up and down and very gently hump the air, like Fred Astaire, only kind of dirty. You’re going to try the triple axel of popular dance: You’re going to moonwalk.
But you’re just not sure about something. How are people going to know I’m him? You’re wearing the single glove and probably a pair of pennyloafers. But, see, because you kind of forget somehow that Michael Jackson wasn’t just some musician, he was an earthquake — to conjure a TV ad for an M.J. doll, he’s Mi-chael. Mi-chael. And in, say, 1984, one thing that most made him Michael was a wedding of grace and violence, a little bit ballet, a little bit Al Capone.
Anyway, you don’t trust whoever’s doing the judging to recognize this. So you dab your face with shoe polish. Costume complete. Now it’s clear. You’re Mi-chael. Mi-chael.
And you probably never thought you’d have to tell the folks of the state that you’d eventually govern that you did this. But there on Saturday was Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, telling the people of Virginia (and everybody else) about the time he really did compete in a dance contest dressed, with his face blacked, in what he described as a Michael Jackson costume.
And the reason Mr. Northam had to disclose this to anybody — in a news conference, on a weekend — was because a different photo had come to light, from his personal page of the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School. It’s of two people. One’s in a parody of country-club casual (plaid pants, blazer, shades, fedora, bow tie, beer can, megawatt grin). The other’s dressed for a Ku Klux Klan meeting — mask, robe, pointy hat and everything. And: The country club guy has these unnatural, uncanny tar-black face and hands.
Even though he says it was he who allowed the picture to adorn his yearbook page, Mr. Northam swears neither of the people in it is him. But he does totally get how we’d conclude something else. And that’s why he’s telling this Michael Jackson story — at a news conference on a Saturday.
According to him, back when such a photo would have been taken, he would have known what a problem blackface is because of the time he tried to be Michael Jackson. It wasn’t that he knew because someone more historically aware and actually black filled him in on the long, objectionable tradition of American blackface minstrelsy — an art form in which, initially, white people dressed as black ones as entertainment, on one hand, and as proslavery propaganda on the other (actually, both hands tended to be clasped for that).
It wasn’t that anybody had told young Ralph Northam about the glorious Virginia Minstrels, the four men whose blackface act caused a foundational sensation in the 1840s; or how the Virginia Minstrels were but one of an endless parade of acts that delighted white audiences — with songs, dances, skits and more — on both sides of the Atlantic for most of a century. The governor wasn’t arguing that his young self came to see that blackface was wrong because he had learned how minstrelsy wasn’t some cultural niche but was once America’s popular culture and how that popularity helped cement the nation’s perception of black people as hideous and stupid and freakish and dumb and lusty and unworthy of more than torture, exploitation, derision, oppression, neglect and extermination.
The governor didn’t say that he’s ashamed now for having partaken in a 19th-century American blackface tradition that’s extended into the 21st — for Halloween, at frat parties, in the nostalgic costuming philosophy defended by a former morning-show host.
Nope. That’s not how Mr. Northam knows it just couldn’t have been him grinning alongside the person in the K.K.K. outfit. He knows — having taken a day to reflect on this — because to go full blackface, like in that picture? Oh man. Do you know how hard it is to get that stuff off? This is why he put only some shoe polish on his face. (Most blackface minstrels used the purer burned cork — and sometimes a greasy base.)
For now, any proof of that Michael Jackson costume resides only in the governor’s memory, as it might in other people’s memories that he was any kind of dancer at all. We might never see how much shoe polish is “a little bit” of shoe polish.
And yet the introduction of process into this defense of his struck me as, I don’t know, strange. The process here matters. Mr. Northam seems to have applied the polish with a prior awareness of what a pain it is to remove, not with any pre-emptive care. It was as if he was speaking from experience. The nightmare wasn’t blackface’s uncomfortable, immoral connection of him to an American ancestry. It was the tedious expunging of the blackness.
Nearly everything Mr. Northam said on Saturday seemed sincere. We’re at a point where a politician’s acknowledging even an unwitting participation in racism seems radically honest. So does welcoming his residents basically to ask him anything about the photo as part of some conversation about racism. And yet it all made sense only as farce — of race, of memory (just the day before he appeared in a rueful statement acknowledging it was him). The idea that a Michael Jackson costume would need shoe polish to read as “Michael Jackson” seems simultaneously to misread the racial tragedy of Michael Jackson and to practice upon him some very classic blackface-minstrel critique that puts him in his racial place — as a puppet for some white dude.
With the news conference’s atonement portion behind him, the farce reached its ceiling — or its cellar. The governor told us that he had once confessed to a black staffer that he had blacked up and the staffer made him see that blacking up is wrong. Mr. Northam had opened the room to questions by then, and the press asked about the dance contest.
Did he perform the moonwalk? He did, he said. Can he still moonwalk? He can! But “in appropriate circumstances,” advised his wife, Pam, who was standing to his left. Or maybe “inappropriate circumstances” is what she said. It was just that kind of event. A reporter asked whether the governor thought it’d be less distressing to make himself look like Michael Jackson — whose alleged pedophilia, thanks to an upcoming HBO documentary, is on the verge of #MeToo-era scrutiny
And so what should have been a moment for a man accused of shamefulness to soak in actual shame flirted with becoming something queasily funny, something fit for “Chappelle’s Show” or “The Dukes of Hazzard.” “The reason I used a very little bit is because, I do not know if anybody has ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off,” Mr. Northam said. He needed to tell us that he knows he shouldn’t have blacked up that one time. But, amazingly, he also needed us to know that he won that dance contest, too. Victory can be plucked from the jaws of chagrin, and the bliss of ignorance can trump an ignoble blight.
At that same news conference, in his opening statement, the governor said, “In the place and time where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace,” as though that time and place were 1884. But to live in this country in this century, and still be talking about white men impersonating black people, is to suspect that it’s probably always 1884 somewhere."
The Governor Who Partied Like It’s 1884 - The New York Times