Blackface—and White

Dr. Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor of Virginia, aetat. 59, is under enormous pressure to resign his position after a conservative website revealed the fact that his page in his medical school yearbook from 1984 carries a photograph of two men, one in blackface and the other in the robes of the KKK, standing side by side.  The governor’s first and apparently unconsidered response was to admit that he is indeed one of the men.  His second, coming 24 hours later, was to deny that he is either of them.  Since he admits to having appeared wearing a facial coat of dark shoe polish on another occasion, the presumption must be that he considers blackface a lesser crime than a night-rider’s robes.  Perhaps he is right, since Michael Jackson spent most of his life undergoing treatment to turn his naturally black face unnaturally white.  Though Jackson has been dead a full decade now, his recordings have never been boycotted for this racist offense—in his case, an act of racial treason.  Indeed, they continue to sell very well, and his memory is still cherished by his fans even as his work remains honored.

“The past is another country,” L.P. Hartley said; “they do things differently there.”  Hartley, born in 1895, died in 1972.  His life thus spanned part of an age where “the past” lasted a good deal more than a decade or two, and social...

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