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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:
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?