Blackface has roots in Baltimore. Though Thomas D. Rice first presented his song and dance show Jump Jim Crow in Louisville in 1828, Baltimore craftsmen modified the banjo for Rice, and the instrument and actor became hugely popular here in the 1830’s. Then, after a few years of performing for sold-out houses in Old Town, Rice took his show to London, where the character Jim Crow was sewn into public consciousness. (Antero Pietila, The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins) Smeared with burned cork, Rice’s ragged, charismatic trickster appropriated black folklore as farce, making the figure Jim Crow shorthand for America’s imperfect union of race.
I thought about all of that this week, as two elected officials in Virginia revealed that they had worn blackface as students 35 years ago. Some people have called for their removal from office. For close to two centuries, white people darkening their faces and exaggerating their features in the name of fun has relegated black people as other, and leaders held in the public trust should have known better even as adolescents, some argue. But we’ve all said horrible things or acted in shameful ways, a member of my Bible study reminded us yesterday. And another wondered: Are there lines that an individual can cross from which he or a system can never recover? And what if you cross a line that you didn’t know existed until you transgressed? Is ignorance of a custom or a law a defense that holds water? And what are the limits of letting a person change or grow once she has fallen off the tracks?
Last night we filled the house at Redeemer to hear Judge Robert Bell and author Steve Luxenberg talk about Plessy vs. Ferguson and the legacy of segregation. Bell, the first African American to serve as the Chief Judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals, weighed in on the Virginia officials. “The Governor made a mistake by first admitting his behavior and then retracting his confession. The shift undercuts his trustworthiness. But let me be clear: the fact of his appearing in blackface as a young man does not disqualify him from public office, in my opinion. He should apologize and show us how he has grown. A person can make a mistake 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even last year, and if he can demonstrate through his actions that he has changed, then that is the salient point. I believe in redemption and the possibility of a person being transformed.”
Luxenberg quoted from a speech that The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Cornell College in 1962: “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.” So how do we get unstuck?
The way forward is to build the beloved community now, no longer settling for any system of separation, no longer living as strangers, no longer using humor as a weapon. Getting there requires us to know ourselves—our gifts and responsibilities, our mistakes and the ways we have grown—to get to know the stranger well, and with God’s help, to turn from any behaviors that cripple to actions that heal. I believe in redemption and the promise of transformation, and the hard work of love that leads to trust. And when we trust each other, especially across lines of race and gender, sexuality or class, we are much more likely to give one another the benefit of the doubt, more able to call each other out when someone crosses a line, and when somebody’s gotten lost, more willing to help each other back home.