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Northam, Virginia and the benefit of the doubt 

I have long loved the Commonwealth of Virginia, and everything else being equal might have chosen to live there. The sheer beauty of the state’s pastoral and mountainous landscapes soothed a New Jersey boy’s heart. Walking across the University of Virginia campus along the white-pillared porticoes on The Lawn afforded me a glimpse of an ordered life I’d hardly dared imagine.

And then I met this Arkansas girl at a reception in one of Thomas Jefferson’s serpentine-walled gardens and never looked back. We went to hear Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys at a high school gym in the Nelson County boondocks. The music, see, bluegrass and blues, had drawn me southward. It would be years before the Arkansas girl confessed that she’d never really liked either one.

But I digress. “Mr. Jefferson’s academical village,” as it’s called, stands as a sort of 18th-century theme park — a monument to a serene life its creator idealized but never lived. As a slave owner who wrote the “Declaration of Independence,” Jefferson was one of the great men of the age; also among history’s great hypocrites.

Yet today, his white and African-American descendants — cousins all — meet yearly to acknowledge and celebrate their mutual heritage.

That’s Virginia.

So, no, it’s not astonishing to me that a Washington Post poll reveals that Virginia’s African-American voters favor giving Gov. Ralph Northam the benefit of the doubt by 58 to 37 percent. They’ve been dealing with history’s brutal ironies for 400 years. Virginians overall are evenly divided at 47-47 percent about whether Northam should be forced to resign in the wake of that dreadful blackface/KKK photo in his medical school yearbook.

As an historical artifact, the offending photo is both sickening and absurd. Sickening in the unspoken assumption behind “blackface”: that African-Americans are essentially clownish and inferior, figures of fun. Also in the understanding that the Ku Klux Klan in their hoods and robes are an equally comical lot, socially inferior to very clever medical students playing dress-up at a Halloween party.

Absurd, too, in that as recently as 1984, intelligent white people would not only think it appropriate to wear such demeaning costumes, but to publish the photos memorializing the event. Amazing.

However, it was also amazing to me, as a Virginia grad student at the same age as Northam was when the offending photo was taken, that just south of the James River, Prince Edward County closed down its public schools altogether rather than integrate. “Massive resistance,” they called it, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch was all for it. Most white Virginians were.

The way I saw things, it was a bit like living in a foreign country. Not my responsibility. I do recall once making a remark in a class on Southern literature to the effect that I was getting tired of lamentations for the Confederacy. A high school teacher in the front fixed me with a glare.

“Ever since the war,” she began “and there was only one war …”

She pronounced it “woe-ah.”

OK, enough nostalgia. The point is that Virginia has been a very different place within living memory. Actually, several different places, and the Eastern Shore, where Gov. Northam grew up on a farm outside the rural community of Onancock, has never been a hotbed of social justice. Separated from mainland Virginia by the Chesapeake Bay, it struck visiting reporters from the Post last week as “a place apart from the rest of Virginia, yet a place where the history of black and white is as painfully enduring as anywhere.”

But, see, there’s also this other yearbook photo of Ralph Northam, depicting him as one of two white players on the Onancock High School basketball team. When the local schools integrated during his sixth-grade year, Northam’s family disdained the private seg academies that sprung up. Nobody there depicts him as either a saint or an ogre, but neither does anybody recall his using racial slurs — ever in his life.

No rebel flag for him, he once told a friend: “Because that war is over.”

“Friends, neighbors and schoolmates — liberal and conservative, black and white,” the Post reported, “rallied around Northam last week, not simply because he is from their town, but because they believe he is not what his yearbook page implies.”

For the past 13 years, Northam and his family have attended a black-majority Baptist Church down the highway in Capeville, Va. A pediatric neurologist who long volunteered at a children’s hospice in Portsmouth, Northam ran for governor on a platform of racial reconciliation and Medicaid expansion, issues that earned him 87 percent of the African-American vote.

Northam made an ugly mistake 35 years ago, and he’s made a downright hash of explaining himself. Even so, it would be heartening to see a seemingly decent man survive one of these made-for-TV festivals of recrimination that have turned American politics so ugly.
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