A long time ago, author A.D. Garrett - wrote “Context is everything. In a long media life, those words were a sort of Holy Grail for me. Whatever the story - whatever the situation - context was everything.
For sometime now, I’ve been unable to get the tragic story of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam out of my head. He’s accused of either wearing blackface or a Klan hood when in college about 45 years ago. He’s admitted to painting his face with shoe polish or something similar for a medical school party.
Whatever he did, it’s badly affected his political career. As it should. But, how badly? Will he be a one-term governor? Is he being held to a false standard?
I would say “Yes” to both.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m neither a racist nor an anti-Semite. Never have been. But, have I done or said racist things? Certainly. So, too, I would guess, have you. Have I accepted racist portrayals or laughed at racist portrayals. I have. So, too, I would guess, have you.
Faced with changing moral values and social mores, we’re constantly asked to accept where we are and what’s acceptable today and not where we were and what was acceptable yesterday.
Consider: In the ‘60's and ‘70's, the most intelligent and brilliantly written show on television was “MASH.” Weekly, we followed the comedic but thoughtful Korean War adventures of Hawkeye, Trapper John, Frank Burns and Hotlips. Masterly crafted comedy with a continuing subtle - but very strong - anti-war message.
In the first years of “MASH,” there were four doctors in “The Swamp.” Three surgeons and an anesthetist who happened to be a Black man. Do you remember the anesthetists character name? “Spearchucker.” “Spearchucker” Jones. While we nationally enjoyed the series for its humor and well-developed characters, we didn’t give a thought to an obviously racist name that was used in our living rooms for several years. The ‘70's. When Northam was partying.
Each December at our house, we watch a seasonal movie called “White Christmas.” Released in 1954, it’s become a sort of classic musical companion to “It’s A Wonderful Life.” I’ve seen it dozens of times and it’s on my top 10 list.
It was full of brilliantly staged musical numbers. The kind you hardly see anymore. About midway through “White Christmas” there’s one with Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Danny Kaye. Very prominent. With Crosby and Kaye in blackface and a cast of other blackface actors sitting toward the rear of the stage. It was called the “Minstrel Show” number on a production “call” board.” You probably read it, watched the scene and thought nothing about. Just like me. In the ‘50's.
In the ‘30's and ‘40's, two of the biggest comedic stars were Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor - both of whom used blackface in their movies and vaudeville shows. Nobody made a big deal out of it. Under the makeup, it was just Jolson and Cantor. Characters we readily accepted.
Context. Commonly known people with labels and mannerisms we just accepted - because it was then. Not now.
Now, we like to think of ourselves as “enlightened.” We don’t accept those “relics of our past.” We’re wiser, smarter, more aware of what’s proper - what’s “the right thing.”
But, consider. About 75 years ago, acting as a nation, we drove entire families of Japanese-Americans out of their homes - confiscated their businesses and other property. And, we trucked them off to barbed wire compounds in isolated areas of our country and kept them there for years. Most lost everything. But, in 1942, it was “necessary.” It was “proper.” It was “accepted.”
Later - much later - we acknowledged what we did then was wrong. It was racist. It was unnecessary. And, as a nation, we said “Never again!”
I happen to live in a state that borders Mexico. Enough said.
“Context is everything.”