About that Blackface Photo from My Past…

I attended a private high school, a very prominent establishment in my home town, and one that prided itself on academic excellence and athletic accomplishments. It was a very expensive school, and my parents sacrificed a lot to send me there. Since it was and still is one of the best-known schools in the Southwest owned and operated by the Christian Brothers de la Salle, I should also mention that it is, officially, a Catholic school.

I have had very little contact with my former classmates since graduating in the mid-1970s. I have not lived in my home state since 1981, and have kept up with only one fellow graduate. I have not attended any class reunions, and have visited the school campus a single time to see a nephew play football. So it was something of a surprise to find myself added to an alumni email group a couple of years ago.

Until recently, I had not noticed any email exchanges of much interest. But in the past week, with all the news swirling about Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, the alumni email group has erupted in an exchange of passionate views, accusations, and expressions of horror and disgust. And why not? Wouldn’t one expect graduates of a celebrated Catholic high school to be aghast at Gov. Northam’s unashamed embrace of infanticide?

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Well, as you have probably surmised, it isn’t abortion that caused all these Catholic alumni to be sickened and appalled. It seems that the governor’s college yearbook “blackface” photo has reminded some of a “reprehensible” episode from our own high school days. With an email entitled “Shame!,” one alumna suggested that all of us rich, white Catholic kids are just as racist as Gov. Northam. (By the way, this lady is in a lesbian “marriage,” one of six such ménages—so I have heard—among our senior class of about seventy girls. But I digress…)

Brother James in blackface.

The email has a photo attachment showing one of our very own Christian Brothers in blackface, something of which I had no recollection. After making some enquiries about the photo, it appears to have been the product of a rather harmless project, even if it was a bit thoughtless and tasteless. The students were performing some sort of play about the history of film, and the Brother was dressed up as Buckwheat, a character in The Little Rascals series. I imagine this was deemed necessary, as there were so few black students in our school—fewer than ten, I would imagine, out of a population of about 750 students.

Well, how times have changed—and how morally superior we are to others, even to ourselves—from 50 years ago! About a dozen people reacted to the blackface photo with their own expressions of “shame,” though few seemed to even remember the photo or that it was in our yearbook. One fellow chimed in with “I can’t help but view this whole situation from a progressive and socialist viewpoint,” whatever that means. Several students reacted with hostility to my suggestion that maybe the political correctness factor was a little excessive in this case.

My favorite response came from a former classmate whose father was the architect who designed our high school buildings and many other structures in my hometown. Though we were once fairly good friends, sharing a love of baseball, math, and reading, we drifted apart after college. He’s now a self-professed “progressive” (like so many from wealthy families) living in a famously liberal college town. His Facebook page once featured a birthday party celebration for Barak Obama, so I can’t really say I regret the distance between us now. His reaction to my anti-pc comment was the most direct: “Growing up … as a white male in the majority, I’ve not had to struggle with the discrimination that so many others have experienced—be it the color of their skin, their gender or sexual orientation. … If the first words that come out of your mouth is to cry ‘political correctness,’ chances are very high that you are in fact part of the problem.”

There it is, that ubiquitous “bishop-speak,” the official, morally outraged language of the USCCB. This manner of blathering has been adopted by at least two generations of American Catholics. This Catholic political correctness is the Pharisaism of our day, allowing people to fixate on essentially meaningless “offenses” in which they play no part, in order to ignore the evil and corruption in our Church and society, in which we are all implicated by “what we have done, and what we have failed to do.” A blackface photo from nearly 50 years ago is a safer object of outrage than the horribly scarred face of an aborted child. It allows you to celebrate an American president with a black heart, and think of yourself as a progressive Christian.

The supreme irony of my classmates’ contrived outrage is that the caption to the notorious photo is more shameful than the silly Brother in blackface. Under the picture is “Dedicated to Brother James You’re OK We’re OK,” an allusion to the pop-psychology book Brother James taught us in lieu of a real theology text. I tried to make this point in my reply to the emails, which no doubt alienated me further from the affections of my fellow alumni.

When my brother pulled his two youngest children from this high school about ten years ago, the school chaplain asked for a reason. My nephew, then 16 years old, gave him a straightforward reply: “Father, none of the other kids at this school even want to be Catholic.” I might have said the same thing in 1975, but without exempting myself from the equation. Thanks a lot, Brother James, for the cloying guitar liturgies, the anti-military speeches and pacifist pablum, the insipid lectures about the “confused” teenage Jesus who had pimples and wet dreams, and everything else about the effeminate Church that contributed mightily to my ten-year Exodus. Instead of blackface, what you really showed us was shame face about everything truly Catholic. Don’t worry about the photo. Progressive moral outrage is short-lived—much, much briefer than the lives of the unborn. Just ask Governor Northam.


  • Timothy J. Williams

    Timothy J. Williams writes on religion, politics, and literature from his home in rural Ohio. He graduated cum laude from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in French and holds Master’s degrees in French and Music Theory. In 2010, Dr. Williams retired from the Ohio National Guard with the rank of Major.

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