I know you've heard about it. The story has been at the top of network newscasts and a major item on social media. There was a racially offensive photo in a medical school yearbook, a photo from 1984. Back in my college years, I wrote film reviews for the student newspaper. I knew students who worked on the yearbook. One of my initial reactions to seeing the 1984 medical school yearbook photo of a young man in blackface standing next to someone in a KKK costume was "How the hell did that photo get approved to be in a yearbook?" That reaction was followed with "Did black students also attend that medical school and, if so, how did they feel seeing racially offensive photos printed as humor material in the yearbook?" Well, I watched Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's live telecast press conference over the weekend. He spoke and apologized -- and the revealed another blackface experience in his life! He put shoe polish on his face so he could look like Michael Jackson when he entered a Michael Jackson dance contest. This was also in the 80s. With his wife by his side in what we've come to expect as the "Stand By Your Man" pose from the wife of a tainted male politician, he told the press that he won the contest. I sat watching his press conference on MSNBC with the same expression on my face that Broadway audience members had seeing the "Springtime for Hitler" musical number in Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS.
In the 1990s, I loved living in the Chelsea section of New York City. I had membership at an independent video rental store called Alan's Alley. A great place with an equally great staff. Alan's Alley was like the bar in CHEERS only it didn't serve liquor. There was a young Latino of about 20 who frequented the video and worked as a clerk at the pharmacy right next door. He was a neighborhood guy many of us knew as a good, polite kid who was deeply impressed with the presidency of John F. Kennedy. He mentioned his interest in seeking a political career so he could make a difference in his community. He was also a serious film enthusiast. In Alan's Alley, he was one of those customers who could engage in lively, smart conversation about films new or from Hollywood's golden age. He'd spoken of an upcoming film he wanted to see. Folks in the neighborhood knew me from local TV and they knew I'd lost a partner to AIDS.
For work purposes, I got a critics screening invite to the movie the young gent in Chelsea wanted to see. I was able to bring a guest to the screening. I asked him if he'd like to go with me. With deep politeness and regret, he declined my invitation. He explained that he was serious in his desire to seek a career in politics and he wanted to enter it with a clean slate. He was afraid that if someone narrow-minded saw us together at a movie, they'd think he was gay because he worked in Chelsea, a neighborhood with a thriving gay population, and he did not have a girlfriend. He was comfortable with the gay community. He just wanted to keep himself free of rumor and scandal.
I was disappointed, but not hurt. I totally understood. He was young and idealistic and, when you think about it, wise. If the Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam had possessed a similar wisdom in his college years, the mess involving that racist yearbook photo could have been dodged. And maybe he would've thought twice about putting shoe polish on his face to enter a Michael Jackson lookalike dance contest. Northam, a Democrat, said that he is sensitive to African-American issues gave the impression that his Michael Jackson dance contest moment was just for laughs.
That is something that our white friends who strongly consider themselves to be liberals need to think about and talk about before they put forth something race-related for laughs.
I had a moment on live national TV in 1991. On CNBC. I was the guest host of a weekend evening show called TALK LIVE! A white actor, popular for a 1960s sitcom, had been booked to be a guest in-studio. Personally, I would not have booked him because, off-camera, there seemed to be something seedy about him when I'd seen him at New York City functions.
In the studio, before the camera, and seated directly across from me, he went into old time white comedian mode and said "You and Sidney Poitier -- the only two who can't tap dance!" He waited for a laugh. I didn't laugh. Even when he told me it was just a joke. I did not find it funny. I don't want to type his name. I'll just post a couple of pics of him in performance on TV and in film.
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