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Friday, February 8, 2019

Northam blackface: Does Democracy Now really believe most Michael Jackson impersonators are racist?

Frankly, I don't see how you can draw any other conclusion.

In the headline section of Thursday's show, Amy Goodman was bringing us up to date on the Virginia blackface scandal. After relating the latest news, the admission by Virginia AG Mark Herring that he had once wore blackface, she went on to say:
His admission came just days after a racist photo emerged showing Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page, depicting a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam initially apologized for the yearbook page but later said he was neither of the two men in the photo, while admitting to wearing blackface on another occasion that same year.
Amy Goodman is saying that Ralph Northam admitted to wearing blackface on another occasion that same year, but Northam never used the word blackface to describe what he had done. So how did he describe it? This is what he said at the Saturday Press Conference:
That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.
In other words, he performed a winning Michael Jackson impersonation! That isn't particularly original, but I have also never heard it called racist until Northam said he did it 35 years ago.

There are still a lot of people doing Michael Jackson impersonations. Check out YouTube, if you have doubts. There are even many YouTube videos on how to do makeup to look like Michael Jackson. I looked at just three of these howto videos. All involved using makeup to darken parts of the skin. All used subjects that started with somewhat lighter skin than Michael's, but not all the subjects were "white" as it is generally understood. The results typically attempt to honor Michael Jackson. They try to come as close to the original as possible, and that includes his very subtle and unique skin tones. They are the very embodiment of that old Oscar Wilde maxim: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That can also be said for their dancing. They are fans. They are darkening their faces in tribute to a great African American performer.

The resulting image is a far, far cry from the racist caricature that is the traditional blackface, and yet Democracy Now is equating these two. This is the way it was put on Monday's show "blackface is blackface," and again on Wednesday, as they described Northam's admission that he darkened parts of his face as part of a Michael Jackson impersonation, as blackface. It makes no difference that everyone else is saying the same thing. They all are wrong.

Billy Crystal in blackface playing Sammy Davis, Jr. on Saturday Night Live
12 May 1984

This was a regular skit on SNL in 1984, the same year that young medical school student Ralph Northam did his now infamous Michael Jackson impression. Many are now saying that was an example of blackface as bad as if he had been the student in blackface with the fake Klansman in the racist medical school yearbook photo, and are demanding that he resign as VA governor because he did something arguably much less offensive than the openly blackface example he was given by a major American TV network on a so-called progressive show that very year. [SNL by no means meant this skit to be a tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr.] Since that is the case, shouldn't they also be demanding that Billy Crystal albums and videos be pulled from the shelves, SNL be banned, or at least sanctioned, and what about Joe Piscopo, who plays Frank Sinatra in the scene? Shouldn't he be treated like the Klansman in Northam's racist photo and be made to suffer too?
I understand why it happened. After Northam apologized for the racist photo under his name on Friday, the only open questions seemed to be 1) Was he the one in the Klan outfit, or the one in blackface?, and 2) How soon would he resign? Then he came out on Saturday and changed that all around. He didn't exactly take back the apology for the racist photo under his name, but he did say adamantly that he was neither of the people in the racist yearbook photo, and in fact, claimed that he had never seen it before it was published by the right-wing website Big League Politics on Friday.

He was in San Antonio in 1984, a medical school student in the army, and he says he never purchased the yearbook. [Has anybody checked for a sales receipt?] BTW, BLP was the same website that would break the Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax sexual assault story two days later.

Probably, most didn't believe him. But proving it, now that's another matter, so they pretty much abandoned the charge that he was either of the students in the racist photo. Besides, he had thrown them a lifeline with his Michael Jackson story. They simply made the equation that in admitting that he darkened his face to play Michael Jackson, he was admitting to wearing blackface, and that made it every bit as bad as if he was the blackface character in the racist picture. With this sleight-of-hand, they were able to maintain the narrative they had developed on Friday of the governor in blackface.

By defining blackface as any use of theatrical makeup to darken the skin and completely removing the very political question of intent, they trivialize what blackface historically has been. By their definition, it makes no difference if the intention is to honor or denigrate. It is the act of darkening the skin that is the crime. And speaking of crime, they talk only of the use of blackface in performance settings, and completely ignore its sinister history as a tool to criminalize black people and terrorize white people far from any camera or stage.

When Democracy Now got to the main part of Wednesday's show, Nermeen Shaikh repeated the claim that Northam had admitted to blackface when he told of his Michael Jackson impersonation. Northam should be used of this sort of malicous substitution by now. The Fox News crowd had been after him to resign for weeks because of his support for late term abortions. Since they define that as baby killing, they have been openly saying the governor should resign because he supports infanticide for at least a week before they were joined by voices on the Left saying he should resign because he once wore "blackface." Shaikh put it this way:
The controversy that’s enveloped Virginia since governor Ralph Northam admitted to wearing blackface last week took a shocking turn Wednesday, when Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface at a college party.
She should have made it clear that Northam never called what he did blackface. That is their description of what he "admitted to." It is Shaikh's judgement that what he did amounted to blackface. In fact, he specifically rejected that description.

Although he did answer a number of questions at the press conference that used "blackface" in their description of the San Antonio situation, without specifically objecting to that term, he did reject it when asked that question directly:
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor, you said at the San Antonio party, you darkened your face. I just want to be perfectly clear. Were you in blackface?

NORTHAM: I wasn't. I'll tell you exactly what I did, Alan (ph). I dressed up in a -- what's his name, the singer -- Michael Jackson, excuse me, that's why I have Pam with me. I had the shoes, I had a glove, and I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks. And the reason I used a very little bit is because, I don't know if anybody has ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off. But it was a dance contest. I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest because I had learned how to do the moonwalk.
I think you can see from that exchange that Democracy Now is being, shall we say a bit disingenuous, when they claim "Northam admitted to wearing blackface." It uses the same logic that allows the Fox News crowd to claim "Northam admitted to killing babies," and President Trump to charge Northam "stated he would execute a baby after birth" in the SOTU. Precisely, the same corrupt logic.

Much has been made about the fact that the governor knew how hard it is to wash off shoe polish. "How would he know that?" is asked coyly by opinion makers who have never had to polish shoes for a living.

Nermeen Shaikh then went on to tell us again how Northam "did admit to wearing blackface":
Governor Northam has refused to step down since a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook page emerged featuring a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam initially apologized for the yearbook photo but later said he was not either of the two men in the photo; however, he did admit to wearing blackface on another occasion that same year.
I think it is clear that it is Democracy Now that is calling Northam's Michael Jackson impersonation blackface. Northam didn't  say he wore blackface.

So far, there has been nothing to suggest that Northam's Michael Jackson impersonation was a parody and not a attribute. Nothing that would imply that it was racist that wouldn't also apply to any Michael Jackson impersonator that used something to darken his cheeks. Since it won the contest, it was probably a pretty good Michael Jackson impersonation for San Antonio. So, if it was racist, so are they all. That's my logic.

Meet the new "blackface" racists, Democracy Now style

Professor Khalilah Brown-Dean, associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University, was on the show as an expert on blackface. She also called what the governor did in San Antonio in 1984 "blackface," and thought he should step down because of it. She also gave us this good description of blackface:
I spent yesterday at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, and there is a poignant display there about the history of blackface, the ways in which theater performers used these exaggerated caricatures of black people to communicate not just their inhumanity or to deny their humanity, but to also convey stereotypes about blacks as being lazy, as being ignorant, of being lackadaisical and just happy to go around singing and dancing.
She didn't say how this applied to a Michael Jackson impersonator, unless using singing and dancing in a performance together with makeup to darken makes it blackface, even if its in tribute and not to convey stereotypes about blacks "as being lazy, as being ignorant, of being lackadaisical and just happy."

Then she goes on to lament:
While we are dealing with the governor’s blackface pictures, while we are dealing with these allegations against Lieutenant Governor Fairfax, there are people in the Commonwealth of Virginia who are suffering because we are not addressing the very real public policy concerns that are happening. Virginia is being hit with the opioid crisis. Virginia is trying to figure out how to properly educate students in public schools. There are issues around criminal justice reform and making sure that people are safe and also have access to a fair and just process. So that the interests of the people of Virginia can be served and government can do what people elected it to do, that resignation should come.
That is rich with irony. It's really rich! Last May, USA Today ran this article:
Virginia, after 5-year battle, passes Medicaid expansion for 400,000 poor people

31 May 2018
By Doug Stanglin
After a five-year-battle, the Virginia legislature has voted to expand Medicaid coverage for some 400,000 poor people, despite opposition from the White House.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatrician who made Medicaid expansion a centerpiece of his campaign in 2017, is expected to sign the legislation soon. More...
Needless to say, the right-wing battle against this victory didn't end with his signature, but by early this year the Coalfield Progress was reporting:
Virginia gets massive turnout for expanded Medicaid

9 January 2019
More than 200,000 adults have enrolled in Virginia’s expanded Medicaid coverage and are covered effective Jan. 1, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Dec. 28. More...
There are powerful forces in Virginia, and the White House, that frankly could care less who Ralph Northam dressed up as 35 years ago, but they don't like his take on, how did she put it?, "addressing the very real public policy concerns" today, so they are in a budget cutting frenzy now that they think he's down for the count. The Virginia-Pilot reported Wednesday:
House, Senate square off on Gov. Northam's proposed budget

By Dave Ress
6 February 2019
Both bodies agree on deep cuts to the two-year budget proposed by the now-crippled governor a bit more than a month ago — even if they don’t agree on exactly what should be slashed from his $2.1 billion increase to state spending for this year and next.
A windfall from federal tax changes that took effect in 2018 is making a bit more than half that increase possible.

Gov. Ralph Northam wanted to use that money for a series of investments in water quality, school construction, broadband and transportation projects, setting aside $216 million over the two years for a tax relief program aimed at families with incomes below $54,000.

Both the House and Senate want the money to go back to taxpayers who face higher state income tax bills as a result of the federal changes.
But the House completely cut the $80 million Northam proposed adding to a school construction loan fund.
And while much of the budget writers’ attention was on trimming spending proposals to free up the federal windfall for tax relief,..
The House cut Northam’s proposed $35 million supplement to the Water Quality Improvement Fund to $20 million, and dropped his $50 million addition to the stormwater local assistance fund.

Northam’s $75 million for the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank also was dropped by the House. More...
Of course, Democracy Now mentions none of this state business going on behind the scene, even though it has been made possible by this Northam "blackface" scandal ignited by a white supremacist website as they lament the lack of focus on the real needs of the people of Virginia, and join the Alt-Right in demanding that the governor that has been spearheading these reforms resign.

That is why I have to laugh. But it is a sorrowful laugh.

Billy Crystal in blackface playing Sammy Davis, Jr. on Saturday Night Live | 17 March 1984

So maybe we should ban SNL, and Mickey Mouse while we're at it, because he, like many of Disney's most enduring cartoon characters where based on the blackface minstrel shows of an earlier era.

See also:
The hidden meaning of Northam's racist yearbook photo, 2 February 2019
If Ralph Northam has to resign, why is Donald Trump still in office?, 5 February 2019
How the "Northam" redefinition of blackface serves white supremacy, 6 February 2019

See also: Rest In Peace Michael Jackson, 5 July 2009

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