What the Eyes Can't See
I think of What the Eyes Can’t See: Ralph Northam, Black Resolve, and a Racial Reckoning in Virginia as telling three stories. Each of the three is incorporated in the subtitle.
First, the book is the personal story of former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a proud and accomplished man who saw his legacy almost stripped away by the unexpected revelation of a blackface photograph on his medical school yearbook page. The subsequent outcry brought him to the brink of resigning office. Instead, through a combination of resolve and luck, he decided to remain and to use the experience to deepen his understanding of what it means to live as a Black person in America. He challenged both himself and his administration to use that knowledge to craft public policies that benefitted the lives of marginalized people.
Second, the book is the story of the Black officials and citizens who encouraged, prodded, cheered, and threatened Northam in the course of his journey. There is Del. Delores McQuinn, a Richmond minister who urged the governor to “take this lemon. Make lemonade, lemon chess pie, lemon bars. You make everything you can to sweeten this outcome.” And there is Wes Bellamy, a fiery Charlottesville activist who promised “hell” if Northam did not adopt an aggressive policy agenda. There also are many whose life stories speak to both the quiet indignities and the outrages that trail many people of color through life. Attorney Cynthia Hudson was an adult before she realized that the public schools in a next-door county, Prince Edward County, closed for five years rather than integrate. Del. Jeff Bourne watched his parents, a mixed-race couple, be unable to find employment in their chosen professions, law enforcement and teaching, despite decades of experience, when they moved from the northeast to southwest Virginia.
Senator Jennifer McClellan and Governor Northam embrace at the September 2021 unveiling of an Emancipation and Freedom Monument in downtown Richmond. Photographer Jack Mayer.
Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.
Third, for those who are open to it, the book offers a primer for understanding how both cultural norms and public policies involving education, housing, criminal justice and much else contribute to the ongoing racial disparities in virtually every aspect of American life. It challenges readers to examine their own lives for attitudes and blind spots that contribute to that result, either consciously or subconsciously.
The title of the book comes from Northam’s admonition to medical students that “the eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know.” If they’re unaware of a particular medical condition, he tells them, they won’t recognize it, even if all the symptoms are staring them right in the face. Similarly, those who haven’t experienced racism themselves or made a conscious effort to recognize it can easily go through life without seeing it. What the Eyes Can’t See urges White Virginians and Americans to remove blinders and come to grips with the ways in which individuals and society help perpetuate racial disparity and despair.