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Don’t you hate it when all the dark, creepy, stupid stuff from your past gets dragged out of the closet for everyone to see? I’ve got stuff. You’ve got stuff. We’ve all got stuff that we’d like to pretend never happened and keep hidden so badly that if Marie Kondo showed up and offered to help tidy it up, we’d slap a padlock on that closet door and usher her out of the house faster than you can say Fibber McGee.
But what about when that stuff that gets dragged out of the closet is a photo of you in blackface in your 1984 yearbook?
Not me. I’ve got plenty of stuff in my closet, but that is not one of them. I’m talking about one of my former Class of ’84 schoolmates.
He’s done pretty well for himself. He hosts his own TV show, and I’ve seen him make guest appearances on CNN quite a bit. He’s written a few books, travels around the country lecturing and making keynote speeches (he even made one at our 30th high school reunion), and is a self professed ‘misbehavior specialist.’
Oh, and he’s also a lawyer. Which is why I won’t be identifying him today while we talk about one of the things he was known best for in high school, which was wearing blackface with a bunch of his other buddies. Its on page 129 of my 1984 yearbook. He’s the one holding the dildo.
This photo is from the KBOY Battle of the Bands. Air band contests were big in the early eighties. Six of my classmates dressed up to emulate Otis Day and the Knights, performing their hit song, “Shout” from the classic frat house comedy filmed in Oregon, “Animal House.” As a group, these guys performed this song in blackface many times over the course of a year or so. They performed it in the school gymnasium during a pep assembly. They performed it on stage (multiple times if memory serves) at public venues during the Battle of the Bands. I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have even taken this photo. I covered the event for the high school newspaper.
As far as I can remember, everyone thought Otis and the band were fabulous. Hilarious. I don’t recall anyone ever bringing up the idea that it might be racist or even insensitive. It simply didn’t even occur to anybody at the time that this was inappropriate. The guys in the photo above loved Otis Day and the Knights, and were doing their best to emulate and pay homage to them, just as the guys who ultimately won the Battle of the Bands that year (I think it was either The Blues Brothers or Loverboy) were doing their best to emulate their music idols by looking and dressing just like them.
But then again, we lived in what was, at the time, an ultra-white community in Southern Oregon. In fact it’s still pretty white, but seems much more diverse now, even though my daughter tells me otherwise. We didn’t have any African Americans in our graduating class. Not one. I believe there were two in the Junior class that year, but no Sophomores. There was one black teacher at the school, Mr. Johnson.
I remember when Mr. Johnson told us in class that when he’d moved to Oregon in the 1960’s, he was followed from the moment his car entered into the city limits by people who weren’t happy about his presence in the community. It was hard for us students to imagine racism being accepted or even present in our community in the 1980’s. I think we thought we were enlightened souls who accepted people of all races as equals. People were people, everyone the same. I think we thought that since the civil rights movement had achieved passing laws, that it was as simple as that. Everyone is equal now. Maybe we thought we were colorblind.
And yet somehow we didn’t see that it might be inappropriate or hurtful to dress up in black face.
I remember Michelle Alexander, but not well. She was friends with my little sister, and was on the soccer team with her. She is one of those two students that were in the class behind mine. When I decided to write about our own blackface incident and what ignoramuses we were in high school, I thought of Michelle, and thought about what never occurred to me back in 1984. I wondered what kind of impact that moment, when six guys in blackface were all the rage on campus, might have had on her life.
I tried to put myself in her shoes (and of course I’ll never be able to really do that), and wondered if she felt uncomfortable watching the student body go wild for them. I wondered if she went home and talked to her parents about it, or if she was motivated to become a civil rights lawyer. I decided to look her up on the internet to see what Michelle Alexander is up to three decades after high school.
Turns out Michelle Alexander has done pretty well for herself too. She has indeed dedicated her life to civil rights advocacy. She is a highly acclaimed civil rights attorney, served as the director of the Racial Justice Project for the Northern California ACLU, serves as a professor of social justice, is an op-ed contributor for the New York Times and has written a bestselling book that pertains to exactly the issue we’re discussing today, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Alexander says that racial discrimination quickly and easily found a way to continue after civil rights legislation passed, pointing out how our prisons have become overwhelmingly filled with African Americans not because of bigotry or hatred towards people of color, but because of indifference (a lack of caring about race and racial groups).
I did a sudden flurry of research on Michelle Alexander, to see if she’s made any public comments about her high school days in Oregon, and whether our shared history of attending that pep assembly made any kind of impact on her life or had anything to do with her later decision to pursue a career in civil rights advocacy, but I haven’t found any mention that she’s made of blackface outside of this excerpt from “The New Jim Crow.”
This excerpt refers to black people performing in black face, not white people. But its easy to draw a parallel to the scene of a group of kids in blackface parading around to entertain a white audience. And I think it still pertains to the issue with white people. And the issue is this: we are an ignorant and amnesiac group who need to educate ourselves about racism and discrimination and fear and how these factors have led us to where we are today. We need to make an effort to learn the history that our school textbooks left out because our nation was embarrassed and wanted to sweep under the rug and diminish the crimes our ancestors committed against others to achieve wealth and control of this land. Not just to African Americans. But to Indigenous Americans, Mexicans and Chinese. The sad thing is, I know I’m leaving out a lot of people. White people pretty much built themselves up by stepping on the backs of every other race. You can argue the point that other races have also stepped on the backs of other cultures and tribes and races to further themselves, but can we save that for another day? We’ve got a monstrous American History journey ahead of us, World History can wait its turn.
There’s one important detail that kept coming up over and over again while I was researching Michelle Alexander. Its about Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. There’s been a lot written about him recently, since the blackface photo from his yearbook fell out of his closet. Since Northam has declined to resign from office, there have been numerous posts on social media and articles like this one in The Atlantic asking Northam at least to get himself educated on the current state of civil rights in this country. The one book that keeps making it to the top of everyone’s suggested reading list for Northam? Michelle Alexander’s.
So back to the guy in blackface in the 1984 yearbook. The one with the dildo, not the governor.
I’ve thought about reaching out to him to ask what he’d say today if somebody brought it up (and believe me, some of my other high school classmate have brought it up recently on social media, but not to his…um, face).
I know what I’d like him not to say. I’d like him not to pull a Northam and try to laugh it off, saying it was all in jest, no biggie. I’d like him not to Brett Kavanaugh the situation and get all ragey and contemptuous.
What I hope he’d say is what I hope anyone who has some shoe polish in their Pandora’s Box would say, or what anyone who regularly blacked out at college frat parties and was later accused of date rape would say. I would hope that he would simply own it. Recognize that every one of us is guilty of doing dumb, thoughtless stuff in our past. Apologize for it, and then just make a sincere commitment to move forward with new understanding and sensitivity, as well as make a real effort to get educated on the matter.
I came across my former classmate’s website the other day. It advertises him as a brilliant, inspirational speaker because he “doesn’t just know about transformation because he’s studied it; he’s lived it. His authenticity and transparency is unparalleled.” That said, I’m really looking forward to hearing how he handles this one. In the right way. Maybe at our next high school reunion.
I’m breaking format a little bit here, and instead of a music playlist with today’s column, I’m offering up a suggested reading list. It’s a short one, so please feel free to add your suggested reading in the comments below.
1. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
2. Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture by W. Fitzhugh Brundage
3. Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity by E. Patrick Johnson