I don’t know what Santa Claus is giving people this year but I know what Andy Kegley is.
Kegley, the executive director of Hope Inc., a Wythe County-based human services nonprofit, is giving out copies of the new book by Virginia journalist Margaret Edds, “What The Eyes Can’t See,” with a goal of organizing some book club discussions in the new year.
The book, which came out this fall from the University of South Carolina Press, deals with Ralph Northam’s tumultuous term as governor and is subtitled “Ralph Northam, Black Resolve and a Racial Reckoning in Virginia.”
I realize this is where some of you may depart, particularly our readers in Southwest and Southside who didn’t vote for Northam in the first place and then voted even more overwhelmingly to change which party controls the governorship after he was gone. If you stick around, though, you might learn a few behind-the-scenes details about the history we just lived through.
The impetus for Edds’ book is, of course, the infamous “blackface” scandal that nearly drove Northam from office, tanked his approval ratings after he decided to stay, and then reconfigured the rest of his term as he focused on racial equity issues. The title comes from a phrase Northam used, which has origins in his background as a doctor: “The eyes can’t see what the mind doesn’t know,” meaning a doctor can’t recognize a condition they’re unaware of — or, in this case, we can’t see racism if we don’t know what it is. Let’s get this out of the way at the outset: Edds hasn’t figured out who’s in that picture in Northam’s yearbook – the one where someone is in blackface and someone else, much shorter, is in a Klan robe. Two different investigations – one led by former U.S. Attorney Richard Cullen at the behest of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, and one commissioned by Northam’s political action committee – tried to figure that out and neither succeeded. The company that produced the yearbook has gone out of business. The photo was too poor to be subjected to facial recognition technology – not enough pixels. Some people simply wouldn’t talk – in particular, the yearbook editor, who now lives in New Jersey. The never-published report by the law firm hired by Northam’s PAC concluded the yearbook editor was “actively avoiding contact by reporters and our investigators.” Edds found her, but the yearbook editor professed no knowledge of where the photo came from.
There are some other tantalizing hints in Edds’ book that I haven’t seen reported elsewhere. “A woman thought by some to have possibly been the figure in the KKK robe, a practicing physician in Hampton Roads, avoided investigators,” Edds writes. The law firm hired by Northam’s PAC “considered a man who attended both VMI and EVMS to be a prime candidate for the figure in blackface.” Some comments he made were “tantalizingly coy” but he denied responsibility. That man also suffered medical issues that clouded his memory. Edds talked to him, as well, and found the interview “equally unilluminating.” In the end, neither the Cullen investigation for Eastern Virginia Medical School nor the never-published investigation led by a former Connecticut federal prosecutor hired by Northam’s PAC could reach a conclusion about who was in the picture. Neither does Edds.
I’ve known Margaret Edds for decades. She was a longtime Richmond-based political reporter for the Norfolk newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, before she retired, and was one of the best in the business. She’s gone on to write multiple books dealing with Virginia political history, among them “An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington Jr.” and “We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson and the Legal Team That Dismantled Jim Crow.” If a Republican former U.S. attorney (Cullen), a former prosecutor under Barack Obama (Thomas “Ted” Kang) and one of the state’s best journalists (Edds) can’t figure out who’s in that photo in three separate inquiries, then I feel safe in saying no one can. Edds does offer this analysis: Northam contends he’s not in the photo. If that’s really him in blackface, then at least two people – the other person in the photo and the photographer – could come forward and say he’s lying. “It is not proof of innocence that no one challenged his claim,” she writes, “but the absence weighs in that direction.” Somebody somewhere must know, right? My personal analysis: Either that’s Northam in the photo and the people who know that feel far more loyalty to him than his fellow party members did when they demanded he resign – or that’s someone else in the photo and they don’t want to admit that for the obvious reasons so they’re content for Northam to take the fall. Of the two options, that seems the more likely to me. Edds eventually comes to believe that Northam isn’t in the photo but that what really matters is what his administration did as a result of that photo.
That forensic research, though, is not the reason to buy the book. I find the book fascinating for the behind-the-scenes account of how the scandal unfolded and then what happened for the rest of Northam’s term. Even if you disagree with everything Northam did, those are still useful insights for how politics and government really work (spoiler alert: not often well).
I won’t give away everything but here are some of the tidbits that caught my eye: Northam came so close to resigning that he called a former medical colleague in Norfolk and asked if he could have a job there. Northam didn’t resign, obviously, but threats to the governor were considered so serious that he took to wearing a bulletproof vest in public – even when he delivered a State of the Commonwealth address before the General Assembly. At various points, Northam worked from undisclosed locations outside Richmond for security reasons. The contractor who took down the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond also wore a bulletproof vest, and was armed, just in case. One of the things that led to the downfall of Virginia Military Institute Superintendent Binford Peay was that he left a voicemail on Northam’s phone that was apparently meant for Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment, in which he vowed to “hang tough” on keeping the statue of Stonewall Jackson. Northam theorizes that “Northam” and “Norment” were close together in Peay’s cellphone directory and the superintendent called the wrong number. That set Northam on a path to sending Peay word that he either needed to get with the program or retire. Peay retired.
Anyone involved in either government or business should read the chapters on how Northam and his staff first responded when news about the yearbook broke. It reads like a textbook example of how not to handle crisis management. It depicts a howling Twitter mob forming, political types demanding immediate action, when Northam’s natural state was to more calmly deliberate. Northam wanted to say he didn’t remember the photo; “the crisis management experts believed the claim would be ridiculed as preposterous,” so he took responsibility for it – even though he later insisted that wasn’t him and no one has been able to prove otherwise. You can read the book yourself for all the messy details.
None of those, though, are the reasons Kegley is giving out copies of this book – to his staff, to his board, to others – and wants to have a book club discussion about it. The real value of the book is in the last five words of the subtitle: “a racial reckoning in Virginia.” Those will be the hardest parts of the book for many white readers, I suspect. I’ll simply say what you’ll find is not on the preachy side, but the policy side – a look at some of the difficulties that Black Virginians face that many white Virginians simply don’t think about because they don’t have to. Edds cites one with the COVID-19 pandemic. Traditionally, information about health department events was passed out to schoolchildren to take home to their parents. When schools shut down, so did that avenue of communication, so how were working or low-income parents – be they Black or white – supposed to get that information? Northam had regular news conferences streamed on Facebook and health departments sent out emails. But state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond (and likely to be in Congress very soon), felt that was still missing a lot of her constituents. “They’re not watching the press conference,” Edds quotes her as saying. “They’re not getting the governor’s email. They’re not getting the press release, so what is the plan to intentionally share that information with them?” She pressed the administration to create some alternate method of distributing fliers but it didn’t happen. “There are blind spots because of who is or isn’t in the room and whose perspective is or isn’t there,” she said.
Edds cites lots of other examples but I single out this one because its lesson applies just as easily in parts of overwhelmingly white Southwest Virginia as it does in McClellan’s Black majority district in Richmond. Edds’ book – a brisk read at 243 pages – offers up a lot to talk about, no matter how you feel about Northam personally. Perhaps your book club would like to talk about some of these things, too.