Ralph Northam’s Blackface – Shouldn’t We Ban Joni Mitchell?

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Quite obviously Ralph Northam’s blackface thing back in 1984 isn’t a good look for a current Governor of Virginia. But there is an important and useful point to make – the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. We do indeed see blackface today as a non-allowable indicator of racism instead of the – at times at least – affectionate caricature it was. But it’s still true that back then was back then, it’s not today:

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he does not believe he is either person in the racist photo that appeared in his 1984 yearbook but that he did once darken his face to resemble Michael Jackson during a dance contest in 1984. In a remarkable, hour-long news conference at the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Northam defended himself from the cacophony of calls for his resignation, but acknowledged that he had made mistakes on race in his past, like when he darkened his face for the dance contest.

Of course, less make up would have been required for that transformation the older the Michael Jackson one was trying to impersonate but still. What was somewhere between normal and a bit un-woke back then has become now a hanging offence. Which is fine, public mores and manners changeover time and we can at least hope they do so for the better. But to be judging the actions of those days by the standards of today is to be making a category error.

For if we don’t do that can any of us ever listen to a Joni Mitchell song again?

The singer Joni Mitchell startled her friends by appearing at a Halloween party 40 years ago disguised as a black man in pimp-like garb. It would be unacceptable today but times were different then, her friends argue. Others disagree. Whichever view you take, her black alter ego was a reflection of her intense identification with black music, writes Kris Griffiths. It’s Halloween 1976, and eminent session bassist Leland Sklar is throwing a fancy dress party at his Los Angeles home for fellow musicians and record industry types, including producer Peter Asher and drummer Russ Kunkel, who would later appear in This Is Spinal Tap.

It wasn’t limited to he one party in 1976 either:

That’s actually from a live TV performance.

To illustrate the logic here. Rosa Parks was right to do what she did, the segregation of buses was a bad thing. The system which imposed the segregation of buses was a bad thing, it is righteous that it is gone. But how should we judge today the drivers who enforced – recall from Rosa’s story, it was the drivers who made sure of the segregation – the system?

We might be able to find, if we looked hard enough, one or two who were drivers on those segregated southern buses still alive today. What are we going to do? Denounce them as racists? Demand apologies? Paperclip their colostomy bags shut? Superglue their strollers to the ground?

Well, quite. We all agree the system was bad. And excuse vast amounts of behaviour then that we wouldn’t excuse today. Because we know that’s how history works, they did stuff different back then.

If Northam should resign it should be because of something he’s done as Governor of Virginia. Or possibly something he’s done in the past which was in the past also regarded as being reprehensible. We have indeed tracked down those who committed racist murders and jailed them decades after the events. The murder part was always wrong.

But blackface? However strongly we believe it should always have been wrong our forbears didn’t think that way and we’ve got to judge those actions in the past by the standards of that past.