I was proud to see one of ABC’s fine young people, Miles Kealing, standing before the church and community leaders at the January 20 Martin Luther King Celebration, sponsored by the Ministerial Alliance, at Metropolitan Baptist Church. Miles will be graduating high school this spring and has been accepted to enter the freshman class at Tulane University in the fall. He has received a full scholarship under the creative and effective Posse program.

At the King Celebration, Miles chose to read “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, which was written in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. The audience stood to applaud when Miles was finished reading this inspiring poem.

This week I recalled two lines of the poem which seem particularly relevant in light of recent news stories:

When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean 

With two of the highest-level elected officials in Virginia exposed as having worn blackface in mock dramas during their younger years, there has been considerable discussion of what such symbolic acts say about our society. Generally speaking, white people just don’t get why this hurts people of color so much. They don’t realize what a caricature and mockery this is of the black experience in America — making a joke of the historical and continuing put-downs people have to endure because of their race.

Maya Angelou nails it. The minstrel show is not fun; it’s hate. The white singer-actor soots his face with scorn, never really enters into the black experience or empathizes with the person he portrays, then scrubs his face clean again — clean of any understanding, empathy or insight.

Sometimes it helps me to free-associate what I’m experiencing with familiar things I remember from the Bible, just to see what connections my mind makes. As I thought about blackface minstrelsy, these words of Jesus came to me:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)

Those religious leaders of his day used their painted-on holiness to put down others. They wore a whitewash of righteousness, but it didn’t go any deeper than the surface; inside, they were nothing but death and filth. Jesus labels this “HYPOCRISY.” Whether it’s blackface or whitewash, it’s phony and deceitful, and Jesus sees right through it.

— Pastor George Van Alstine