Black face in America continues in unexpected places: Phillip Morris

February 6, 2019

Black face in America continues in unexpected places: Phillip Morris

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- This is definitely not what the promoters of Black History month had in mind.

Racial skeletons are literally flying out of dusty closets and into disturbing headlines. At least two high profile public figures have been forced to perform racial perp walks and we’re not yet a week into the month used by some to reflect on the history of blacks in America.

First, it was revealed late last week that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook had pictures of a man in blackface and another in a KKK robe posted on his personal page.

Initially, Northam acknowledged he was the man pictured in blackface and apologized. A day later, he changed his story and said the painted face wasn’t his. The inexplicable about-face came as calls for his resignation were reaching a crescendo.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the first-term Democratic governor had become a one-man crisis communicator. He acknowledged that not being remembered as a racist is what motivates him to fight for his legacy as an army officer, physician, and a respected politician.

Unfortunately, for him forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t currently trending as cultural priorities. Few will cry him any tears. America is currently in a highly polarized and racially divisive climate. Sometimes, it feels that the mood of the nation is being reset to the 1960s or earlier. There is a dangerous shortage of unifying leadership.

Northam’s past is disturbing. However, it’s the confession of award-winning actor Liam Neeson that personally troubles me even more. News broke Monday that Neeson had outed himself as a former violent racist in an interview with The Independent, a British newspaper. Neeson, 66, insisted that he no longer harbors racists views while acknowledging that several decades ago he randomly went in search of black men hoping to provoke and attack them.

Neeson said his fury was stoked by a friend who allegedly told him that she had been sexually assaulted by a black male. The then-young actor said he took it upon himself to extract a pound of random black flesh as retribution.

In a remarkable interview with Robin Roberts of ABC’s Good Morning America, Neeson said he felt a “primal urge” to attack random black men as part of a revenge plan to settle for his friend’s alleged assault. He said he never attacked anyone but has continued to use the alleged assault for fuel in his acting career.

That’s the part of his race confession that bothers me most. I have long enjoyed Neeson’s work. As the father of a daughter, I’ve long cheered him in his “Taken” series, in which he uses his “particular set of skills,” to pursue and punish his daughter’s kidnappers.

However, to learn that his convincing screen persona continues to be partially fueled by latent revenge rage that once spurred him to go in search of unsuspecting African-American males induces nausea. His confession undoubtedly will render many incapable of continued support of his work.

When Roberts asked Neeson if he saw any teachable moments resulting from his shocking racial confession, he did offer something of use. At that point, he had nothing to lose given his unsolicited testimonial.

“We all pretend that we are politically correct. (But) sometimes you just scratch the surface and you discover this racism, and this bigotry, and it’s there,” said Neeson.

I give him credit for transparency. He knows the content of his own character. The transplanted Irishman also appears to have a pretty good read on America, his adopted country.

February is far from over. One can only wonder what black – or blackface – history will emerge in what remains of a month loosely focused on African-Americans.

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