If you lived in the Highland Greens condo tract in Buena Park in 1967 and answered your door on Halloween night to the pasty-white sight of the Pillsbury Dough Boy and Adolf Hitler holding out their candy bags, that was my friend Dave and me.
For some now-unremembered sin, my stepdad wasn’t going to let me go trick-or-treating that night. When he relented at dusk, I didn’t have a costume. So I dabbed on the signature paintbrush mustache, Hitler-combed my hair, and out we went.
I later learned this wasn’t the right thing to do—actually later that night. Most folks thought the madman/muffin team-up was cute or funny, but the few who didn’t—mainly folks with European accents—let me know in no uncertain terms that my outfit was shameful. At one house, an elderly couple willed themselves to see someone else: “Oh, look, it’s little Charlie Chaplin!” You can bet I walked away doing the Little Tramp’s shuffle.
I learned from that, but not so much that a few years later it wasn’t me in a high school yearbook photo—which the editor sagely refused to run—of the school’s Political Science Club, posing with a couple of guys sporting a Klan outfit and a platter-lipped African tribesman mask. You will not see me running for president any time soon.
The photo isn’t that different from the one that may cost Virginia’s Governor Moonwalk his job.
What the hell were we thinking?
I’ll tell you what: I can’t attest to the Virginian’s mindset, but back then, my friends and I thought we were winning, that the tide had turned and racists and their racist stereotypes were headed to the trash heap of history and deserved to be mocked and lampooned on the way down, as was the American custom.
America had mocked the Nazis, even as World War II was still raging in Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, in Bill Mauldin’s Pulitzer-winning comics in Stars and Stripes, and in the Spike Jones hit record “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” By the time my friends and I were in our teens, Nazis were downright hilarious in Hogan’s Heroes, The Producers, Laugh-In and elsewhere.
When we were in grade school, we’d seen blacks being beaten by Southern cops on the news, and we had wept when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. But we’d since seen Sidney Poitier slap a white man silly in In the Heat of the Night and TV’s first interracial kiss on Star Trek; rock was being reclaimed and revolutionized by Jimi Hendrix, and Richard Pryor was reinventing comedy. Black Power was becoming more than just a phrase, and the arc of history was arcing in the right direction.
What the hell did we know: Corona del Mar High School had one black student, and we didn’t bus him in—we jetted him over, an exchange student from Africa. From our white-assed vantage, it looked as if the wheel had turned, and none of us imagined that a half-century later cops would still be shooting kids of color dead in the streets and we’d have some orange turd in the White House defending tiki-torch-carrying Nazis as “very good people.”
I bring up this little history lesson because the point of lessons is to learn from them, which is what the human brain is hard-wired to do, as well as why we’re not all still living in caves hurling our poop at one another. Unless you’re information averse like that ochre ogre in the Oval Office, the advantage of having done and said stupid shit is you’d learn from it and try to be a better person.
Consider the late Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia. Unlike current Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Byrd didn’t briefly pose in or adjacent to a Klan outfit on a lark; Byrd was a Klansman, the Exalted Cyclops even of his local group. During WWII he insisted he would not serve in an integrated military, writing (thanks, Wikipedia), “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side. . . . Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”
Well, screw that guy, right? Except Byrd learned and changed. It took him awhile—he opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964—but the wheel in his head turned. He later renounced his racism, supported civil rights, voted to create Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and, nearing the end of his tenure as America’s longest-serving senator, proudly endorsed Barack Obama for president.
When Obama sang “Amazing Grace” as a balm at a memorial for the victims of the racist mass shooting at a Charleston church in 2015, he was voicing the words of John Newton, a 1700s British slave-ship captain who later became an ardent abolitionist, influential in Britain outlawing the slave trade a half-century before the U.S. followed suit.
One of my favorite David Mamet lines was in his The Unit TV series. A Special Forces team leader is hesitant to work with a CIA officer who had failed him before. He’s asked, “So you don’t think people can change for the better?” and he responds, “Nope. I’ve seen it, though.”
Such changing grace can be seen in lots of places, particularly if you look within yourself. If you don’t think you’ve screwed up and hurt and offended others in your life, you probably haven’t been paying attention. But if you have, you’ve likely learned and grown from it.
Which is why it would take considerable convincing for me to think that Northam needs to resign his office because of a thin layer of ink on a 35-year-old sheet of paper maybe depicting him with a thin covering of cloth or shoe polish over his face.
It’s one thing if that photo were emblematic of the person he is today; the way, for example, that Donald Trump having discriminated against black renters decades ago is consonant with the unrepentantly racist mushroom dick he remains today.
But Northam has a solid civil-rights record in his state and has supported the Affordable Care Act, criminal-justice reform and other actions that favor working and poor people of all colors. According to a poll conducted in his state by the Washington Post, 58 percent of African-Americans in Virginia want him to stay in office. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but theirs should maybe matter more than yours or mine.
Unless you have an inexhaustible supply of rage, you’ve got to choose your battles. Maybe Northam’s supporters are less concerned about his dusty old photo than they are about the current actions of the Republican Party that unearthed that photo, the party that has been actively working to disenfranchise voters of color or to negate their votes through gerrymandering.
Maybe Northam’s “appearance of racial insensitivity” is of less concern to them—as it should be to you and I—than the daily racist, xenophobic, corrosive spewings of our Commander in Chief or his attempts to shred our social fabric and pit working people against one another while his wealthy, largely white club members vacuum up the nation’s money.
If I ever run for president, or—in these politicized times—even for a local vector-control district post, you can be sure some political opposition group will dig up the high school photo of me (I’m the one in the Dagwood Bumstead mask), so I’d like to apologize in advance: Gosh, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.