I usually don’t engage in online arguments and discussions because I know I’m not the smartest cookie in the jar, and I’m afraid that I might open my mouth and prove that point.  That being said, there comes a time when you see evidence of such full scale lunacy, you just can’t continue to remain silent.  The controversy over Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and his use of “blackface” to impersonate Michael Jackson has finally caused me to break my silence.

First, let me say that as an American of African descent, I do understand the emotional minefields that are stirred when seeing someone in blackface.  I have old movies of actors in blackface, some of which are people of African descent, and I watch them from time to time to remind myself of what our ancestors had to cope with in an extremely racist society.  I know my own discomfort when I look back on some of those old movies.  But looking back can also help you understand how to cope with discomfort when you have no means of changing someone else’s insensitivity or crudeness.  I also learned to put things in perspective.  I also look at old “Three Stooges Movies” and believe me no one is more stereotyped as stupid than white men are in those movies.  The point is, thank goodness our need for comic relief has become more sophisticated than it was in days gone by.

But there is another issue that bothers me in the case of Governor Northam.  And that is… Why should he be so ridiculed for darkening his skin when he was portraying a black man?  Are we as people of African American descent so sensitive to the color of our skin that it makes us cringe when someone darkens their skin?  Would it not be more offensive if he had not darkened his face but tried to alter history and make us think that Michel Jackson was a white man?  What about Shakespeare’s Othello?  If a white actor portrays Othello as did Orson Welles, should he not darken his face since Shakespeare made it perfectly clear that Othello was a “black-a-moor”?

In my opinion the problem here is not the use of “blackface;” the problem is that not enough “blackface” has been used in the past when it came to teaching history.  Take for instance the Bible.  I’m old enough to remember when I was a little child and all the pictures of the prophets and people of the Bible were portrayed as white people.  I remember asking and discussing with my mother the question of, “Where are all the black people?”  Finally we would find one or two, holding fans for the white people.  Why even Jesus had blond hair and blue eyes!  And in the movies all of the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians were white people.  I’m telling you, there was some serious need of “blackface” in that book and in movies back in the day.  Thank goodness we have progressed a little.  Most Bibles have no pictures today (not sure you can call that progress), and we are now casting movies with people with more melanin to reflect better historical accuracy in movies today.  But we still have a long way to go, because the lead roles of kings, queens, emperors and pharaohs are still being given to people with as little melanin as possible.

For me the problem is not the use of “blackface,” it is how the person in blackface portrays people with dark skin.  After all I have walked around in dark skin all my life, and I cannot take it off nor do I want to take it off.  Why should I be offended because someone wants to imitate my beautiful brown skin just because they can take it off at the end of the day?  Like I said, it’s not the “blackface” but how dark skinned people are being portrayed that is the issue.  If someone portrays black people in a derogatory manor, it is because they have been poorly educated.  Address the issue of bad education to solve the issue of misinformation.

Besides, if we take the point of view that people who darken their skin temporarily are racist and should be punished, what should we do with all those people who take to the beach, their backyards, “Coppertone,” and tanning booths to put on “blackface?” Are they racists too?  And what about all those black people who use skin lightening products and makeup to appear lighter?  Are they reversed racists?

Come now colleagues.  Don’t you see that there are some people out there with the ultimate goal of pushing our buttons?  The goal is to divide and conquer.  Many black people voted for Governor Northam.  If you voted for him, you must have thought he was your man or at least the best choice at the time.  Why allow what some people are calling an indiscretion of youth destroy the man’s career?  HE APPOLOGIZED!  Move on.  Why can’t we see?  They are pushing our buttons?  There are far more important issues to be addressed.

Barbara Marthal

Barbara Marthal is an author and storyteller who focuses on the relationship between white and black Southerners and her own Southern heritage.

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