Special to the Mirror by Charles Landis
Lie many after Northam’s blackface yearbook story broke, I revisited my high school and university year books to see what indiscretions may be recorded. At university, I was reminded I often failed at an insidious drinking game called Prince of Wales (who lost his tails and who found them). Enough said. In my 1953 high school yearbook, however, I came upon a picture of me standing aside of a lectern in the pose of giving a declamation as President of the Athenian Literary Society at a ceremonial event during graduation week.
To those not familiar, am Athenian Literary Society engages in oration , debates, and declamations on topical issues. In this instance, the requirement of my declamation was to memorizes an important speech given by someone else and interposes my own opinions relating to a topical meaning or interpretation. For example, committing to memory Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and focusing on something topical. I.e. civil rights issues.
Another student, in the Dramatic Society, decided to do an impersonation of Al Jolson, the most popular and highest paid entertainer at the time, who donned blackface and (in today’s vernacular), appropriated African-American music. At the time, 1953, no one thought anything about this but as entertainment.
With approval of the faculty counselor, I decided to give a declamation on a speech given about Toussaint L’Ouveture (1743-1803) ,who transformed a slave uprising in Haiti into a revolutionary movement. His military skills and political acumen earned him the respect of Napoleon and other colonial powers. No doubt, after the ill-fated rebellion of Nat Turner, he would have bene very much in the minds of Henry Wise, Abel Upshur, John Calhoun, and other defenders of slavery.
L’Ouveture was an adopted name and a French translation is “ the opening” or “one who opens the way.” The importance of Louveture is not only in ending slavery but to end the racial identity of slaves as people of color. He was a Jacobin in the 18th French revolutionary period.
Many years later, mid 1970s, I was invited to an embassy reception in Washington and met the Minister-Ambassador Plenipotentiary to North and South America and the United Nations. (He really said that). I related to him my declamation on L’Ouveture and he was amazed that a kid from an all-white male private school in segregated Jim Crow Virginia would do this. In appreciation, he gave me two beautifully hand carved images of Haitian women carrying baskets (slaves?) which hang on a wall in my house.
The Virginia of my youth was not as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone With the Wind, Mockingbird, or oi W.J. Nash’s Mind of the South. At age 11 I was sent to a military academy and instilled with a cadet code of honor which mirrored that of my father and older brother when at the Naval Academy. Penalty for violation was severe. Under the code there was toleration of free speech not permitted today where all is censured by political correctness and identity politics. Today the code for entertainment and topical discussion is defined by identity of race, class, and gender. Today the penalty for violation of the identification code is assault and branding as racist, xenophobic, and misogynist. Wearing a MAGA hat is an absolute identifier.
Today, if Northam had done as Al Jolson did, he could well be swinging from a tree on Monument Avenue in Richmond. It would be interesting to have a conversation with L’Ouveture today about the identity politics that now prevails.
C. Augustus Landis