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The controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 year book photos has caused many to ask questions about blackface. Again. According to a recent headline from The Onion, a satirical news site, “Every Baby Boomer in Country Urged to Resign After Photos Emerge of Them in Blackface.” The article reads,
“Although those photos do not represent who we are now, the people you see in those pictures are, in fact, us,” said 64-year-old Cleveland resident Russell Sedlak, speaking on behalf of all Americans born between 1946 and 1964, each of whom can be seen in black face paint, oversized red lips, and a curly wig in one of 73 million photographs unearthed from yearbooks and family albums. “Despite thinking it was funny at the time, we understand now, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was deeply offensive to many people. We also wish to stress that our decisions to wear these costumes, while regrettable, were not undertaken in malice. After all, the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s were a very different time.”

The Onion article raises a good point: how do we deal with our historical past?

The debates over Confederate monuments created many similar discussions about the degree to which we choose to preserve parts of our past that may or may not be consistent with our current identity. Last fall, I wrote about the history of blackface in conjunction with the cartoon image portrayal of Serena Williams by Mark Knight. Minstrel shows and dressing in blackface is a part of American history. How much should we punish people for that past?

The case of Governor Northam is a complex one. It seems that he chose the photos on his yearbook page. There is one of him in a suit and tie, another of him in a hat and boots, one of him posing with his (or someone else’s?) car, and a photo of a man in blackface next to a man in a Klan outfit, likely at a party of some sort as they are inside and holding drinks.  Interesting choices for photographs. I find the text to be equally interesting:

“Interest: Pediatrics.

Quote: There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”

In the field of history, we spend a great deal of time sifting through evidence from the past. What sort of opinion might you form of someone from this yearbook page? On the other hand, is this the only evidence of Ralph Northam that exists? Of course not. So how does this yearbook page fit into a long history of a well-documented public figure? Is it a blip? Or a consistent pattern?

I find it confusing that Governor Northam initially apologized for the blackface and Klan photo, then denied that he was in the photo that he chose for his own yearbook page, then admitted to dressing up in blackface as a ‘tribute’ to Michael Jackson at another party. In Virginia, as in many other parts of the United States, dressing up in blackface has a long history stretching back to the 1830s. Minstrel shows and blackface began to decline in popularity around the end of the 1800s, but persisted, as evidence of the ubiquitous racism institutionalized in our country. The civil rights movement and its emphasis on the dignity and citizenship of African Americans increased the public ridicule for blackface, but blackface merely became less public instead of disappearing. College sororities and fraternities are some of the most common private spaces for blackface to occur. If you don’t believe me, spend some time looking through yearbooks in the distant past as well as the recent past. The photos of a reenacted Klan led lynching are some of the most chilling.

There is one thing we can all agree on: America has a racist past. The question is, why are we so unwilling to admit it, understand it, and talk about it?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • Mary Huissen says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful post.
    To offer one possible reason in answer to your closing question: because we also have a racist present, and sadly at this rate, a likely racist future.

  • mstair says:

    …not defending anyone here … just analyzing …

    (from Janet M. Gibson (Professor of Cognitive Psychology, Grinnell College)
    “Funny is the subjective experience that comes from the resolution of at least two incongruous schemas. “

     “It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”
    Jesus, here (to make a point that has lasted for millennia) makes fun of rich people and camels.

    Humor is (and will always be like that) … someone may always be offended
    like Humane Society folks (schema 1) and Wily Coyote (schema 2) by Road Runner cartoon gags …

    Being a Believer is about being a Repenter – always allowing The Holy Spirit to instruct about giving up the insulting choices we first make – but here The Church and 21st. century society separate – we are commanded to forgive the repenter … how many times? … 7? … 70? …

  • Diana J Walker says:

    A few years ago I had considered relocating with my job to a city in the South. Full of hope, I was enthusiastic about visiting the town to try it on for size. Then, while in that city, I followed a pick up truck that sported a bumper sticker that read: If I Had Known Better I Would Have Picked My Own Cotton.
    With horror and disappointment, I rejected the job offer. Who would print, purchase and proudly display a message like that? We have a long way to go. God help us.

    • George E says:

      A truck driver rejects slavery, and you find that to be horrible? Yes, I guess “we” do have a long way to go.

      • Diana Walker says:

        Yes. The bumper sticker was/is open to interpretation. I took it as that African Americans got “uppity” and that was unacceptable to the driver. Rejecting slavery is anything but horrible.

  • George E says:

    People should be held to their own standards. All people, including progs and Dems.

  • RLG says:

    Interesting comment Dianna. I heard of a man who considered relocating to Grand Rapids for work. When he scoped out the area and visited a Christian Reformed Church, he came to realize that the denomination would not recognize the marriages of homosexual couples as valid and would not admit such couples to church membership. Recognizing such ongoing prejudice he turned down the job offer. We have a long way to go. God help us.

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    Where does the concept of redemption come into play? I had much different views in high school college and now.
    I have learned much, changed and act different today. Why should I be held responsible for immature acts with no consideration of my now reformed acts?

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