I’m not running for office, nor am I being blackmailed, but in the spirit of honesty that’s an integral part of the recovery program I practice, I feel the need to make a confession: Somewhere in a shoebox or an old envelope or stuck in a book that got returned to the library, are pictures of me in blackface.
I’ve thought about it off and on over the years, but it wasn’t until reading a piece in The Atlantic about the fact that so many “woke” liberals, as the kids say, still see nothing wrong with dressing as an African American in the spirit of idolatry rather than mimicry that I was prompted to open this can of worms.
Because let’s be honest: There’s never, ever a good “reason” to dress in blackface. It’s not cute or funny or cool, even though I thought all of those things at the time. My intentions were perfectly innocuous, but that still doesn’t let me off the hook. Neither does the fact that I was drunk most of the time in those days, or the fact that few people even remember it.
I did it, and I’m sorry, for what it’s worth.
The background: It was Halloween 1994 (another reason this seems like a good time to come forward), and the biggest pop culture event of the year was Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” I saw that film three times that year, and my admiration for Samuel L. Jackson grew into fanboy adoration quickly. When a good friend at the time and I were discussing costumes for our annual bachelor pad Halloween party, it just seemed like a crazy-fun idea at the time: He had the hair and the chiseled good looks that would make him a passable version of John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, and I got some cheap greasepaint and an Afro wig to go as his partner, Jackson’s Jules Winfield.
At this point, you might be asking, “Dude. Didn’t anyone point out that was a pretty offensive costume choice?” Excellent question. Someone should have, but no one did, and looking back, I can imagine several reasons for that. One: It was a quarter-century ago, and the things that we’re more aware of today just didn’t register like they should have at the time. I’d like to think my contemporary inclination to say not just no, but hell no, to such a costume choice today has come from my willingness to listen to black voices in my life who have educated me about what is and is not offensive. (There are probably quite a few Confederate flag wavers around these parts who could benefit from such a listening experience, by the way.)
Which brings me to the second reason no one pointed out that dressing as a black gangster was a bad idea: I labored under the mistaken assumption that because I was paying homage to the character, and because I was liberally minded, that there was no possible way anything I did could be construed as racist. I wish I had that big, blaring buzzer from “Family Feud” to send back in time and blast in 23-year-old me’s face when he had such thoughts, but I don’t. It just didn’t register.
And that still doesn’t let me off the hook.
Ignorance of racism, whether overt or unintended, does not mean that offense wasn’t given. I don’t recall anyone at our party complaining, but I freely admit that (a) I was drunk and (b) I can’t remember a single African American friend who hung out with us in those days. (By this point, you’re probably thinking, “Well, yeah, because YOU DID STUPID THINGS LIKE WEAR BLACKFACE,” but the truth is, the population of McMinnville, Tennessee, just wasn’t that diverse, and certainly the circle of young professionals in which we traveled didn’t make much of an effort to be inclusive.)
And yet those things still don’t earn me a pass.
So why, you may be wondering, am I bringing this up? Why the mea culpa when I could just as easily have let sleeping dogs lie, since whatever photographs exist are probably buried somewhere in a box in my garage and I have no plans to run for public office anyway?
Because while you may not have known, I do. And as a guy who writes frequently about the nature of community relations between races, genders and sexual orientations, I feel a certain responsibility to “out” myself, as it were, and stand on the principles I would like to see the rest of us aspire to.
Only by owning our mistakes can we truly grow — as human beings, and as a society. My past indiscretion didn’t burn any bridges or alter the course of anyone’s destiny, but it’s still a blemish on a life I’ve tried to course correct whenever the spirit leads. It was an idiotic decision for which I have no excuse except my own ignorance, and for that, I apologize.