Are you on fire
From the years?
What would you give for your
(Amy Ray, “Kid Fears”)
Hoo boy. The governor of Virginia has gotten himself into a bit of a sticky wicket, hasn’t he? Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook was uncovered recently showing him wearing blackface and standing next to a Ku Klux Klan figure. I personally believe that this little “detail” was always sitting inside his closet-of-anxieties. It’s probably been a ticking time bomb; one that I suspect he knew was going to eventually be unearthed at some point. Who doesn’t know what’s on their yearbook page, especially an elected official?
Yearbooks aren’t meant to be like the ancient Egyptian pyramids, glorifying a life but also designed to be sealed-up so that no one will enter and learn about its contents.
Nope, yearbooks sit on a shelf and are opened every ten years or so when a memory creeps back into one’s head by either a friendly reminiscence or a personal curiosity. They are a permanent history found in homes and libraries. You can’t run from a yearbook. They are also a pre-Internet cautionary tale to be careful about what is published about yourself since it can follow you for the rest of your life.
The governor at first apologized for his picture. Then 24 hours later he denied that the black-faced man on his yearbook page is even him. He does admit to wearing shoe polish and dressing for a dance competition in the mid-eighties to look like Michael Jackson, though. Yeah, that fixes everything. It almost makes me forget about the KKK figure on the same page.
But I can’t help the governor here. He’s in a mess of his own making, albeit 35 years after the fact.
Besides, I’ve got my own troubles.
I just took my own college yearbook off the shelf.
The above is your humble blogger in 1981 during a campus protest at my college, Eastern Michigan University. I was an elected member of the student government. We were protesting the school’s decision to sign the football coach to another year’s contract, despite the fact that the team had been winless in its recently completed season.
Unlike the good governor, I actually remember the moment this picture was taken. I recall that it was an unseasonably cold November day, and when I looked into my jacket pockets to pull out my gloves, I found only one. I was really mad at myself for having only a single glove. I proceeded to march with my fellow student activists along with one hand firmly in my jeans pocket.
This was two years before Michael Jackson made wearing just one glove chic. I could have been a trendsetter. Instead I was merely looking for warmth. I feared frostbite; in November.
We were a spirited group. We professed to be humiliated that our school was one of only two colleges in the nation with a winless record.
Prior to the coach’s contract extension, the president and vice president of the student body visited his office and pointedly asked him to resign. The student newspaper was tipped off ahead of time, and promptly sent a photographer to stand outside of the office to snap a picture of the coach and the student leaders after the meeting. This incident created division on campus. Some felt the stunt was self-serving; that student government representatives were unnecessarily shaming this man in public.
University administrators concluded that they weren’t going to be bullied by students, so they offered a contract extension to the coach. We responded by marching in protest.
After the march, many of us went to an off-campus bar to have beers and cheer our success. We felt that we successfully created awareness and helped to foster a sense of activism at a higher education institution not generally known for campus involvement.
My memory is crystal clear of that moment in the bar because I remember as we whooped and hollered in boisterous celebration, there was an even larger contingent of students (men and women, as I recall) whose attentions were riveted to the big-screen TV of the daily airing of General Hospital. “Shhhh!,” they hissed at us with glares to match. We had encroached on their mid-day turf, and our cachet, such as it was, paled compared to that of Luke and Laura.
Eventually the incident faded and we turned to other matters, specifically our studies and graduation for the following year. Most of us were fair weather football fans at best anyway.
Many years later, a friend from that period traveled into DC, where I was living at the time, and we got together for dinner and to catch-up on our lives. We reminisced about the march and laughed about our guilelessness. I can vividly recall my friend remarking, “It’s a good thing none of us are planning to run for public office.”
I remember nearly all of the details of these events. Whenever I’ve pulled out that yearbook over the years, I’ve grimaced as I looked at the pictures, wondering just for a moment how the football coach must have felt that day about what were doing and how we treated him. He deserved better.
So as I read about the current events in Virginia, I bet Governor Northam has a pretty good recollection about the pictures in his yearbook too. Perhaps someday he’ll come clean about them.
Until next time…