The above is the most embarrassing picture of me in the St Xavier HS Class of 1987 yearbook. It’s not even really that embarrassing, my wife (who has seen very few pics of me from this era,) thought it was kind of cute. I was just really tired that day.
At least I’m not doing anything racist… as opposed to Virginia Governor Ralph Northham, who was recently discovered to be at least one of the people on the right in this picture from his 1984 medical school yearbook.
Good old Ralph is the 73rd Governor of the Old Dominion, having beaten by nine points veteran GOP flunky Ed Gillespie in one of the most contentious and racially charged campaigns of the last election cycle. The image was uncovered by a right wing website and quickly confirmed as authentic by the mainstream media, evidently provoked by the Governors clumsy response to a reporters question on a bill being debated to change the states late term abortion restrictions. Ralph’s questionable media savvy is going to be a recurring theme here.
In a whiplash series of apologies and retractions, Northam seems to have settled on a claim that he is neither of the people depicted in the yearbook photo. Why a future pediatric neurologist with the nickname “Coonman” would have two other people dressed in blackface and KKK cosplay on his yearbook page is a mystery. In his press conference in support of this strange claim he managed to fit his foot even further into his mouth by admitting that he had worn blackface in college in order to impersonate Micheal Jackson for a dance contest. Oh, and he referred to the first Africans in Virginia as “indentured servants,” for some strange reason.
Pretty much everyone in the Virginia and national Democratic Party have called on Northam to resign, which would be fine except for the fact that the next two people in line have their own scandals. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been credibly accused of at least two sexual assaults. And Attorney General Mark Herring got out ahead of his own blackface history by admitting that he and his friends had put on blackface to go to a party as Run DMC.
Jesus Christ on a Pogo Stick Virginia…
I’d like to believe that such shenanigans are a thing of the past or confined to the more “yokel” adjacent parts of the nation. Sadly that would be misguided. Blackface has a long history in the good old USA, and it’s always been an act of white supremacy. From the above 2014 Vox article…
Blackface is much more than just dark makeup used to enhance a costume.
Its American origins can be traced to minstrel shows. In the mid to late nineteenth century, white actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage.
To be clear, these weren’t flattering representations. At all. Taking place against the backdrop of a society that systematically mistreated and dehumanized black people, they were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.
The blackface caricatures that were staples of Minstrelsy (think: Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, and Jezebel) took a firm hold in the American imagination, and carried over into other mediums of entertainment.
Blackface has also been seen in Vaudeville Shows and on Broadway. Yes, black actors sometimes wore blackface, too, because white audiences didn’t want to see them on the stage without it.
We have blackface performances to thank for some of the cartoonish, dehumanizing tropes that still manage to make their way into American culture.
Beyond that, blackface and systematic social and political repression are so inextricably linked that, according to C. Vann Woodward’s history The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the very term “Jim Crow” — usually used as shorthand for rigid anti-black segregation laws in force between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement — derives from an 1832 blackface minstrel number by Thomas D. Rice.
There’s no way around it: this particular costume choice has a terrible track record.
Yet we white folks still keep sticking our hands into this particular Gom Jabbar. Like we’re convinced that THIS TIME it will be OK. Just last year Megyn Kelley’s attempt to craft a career outside the Fox News Bad Take Factory exploded spectacularly on contact with her defense of blackface Halloween Costumes. A week later a BYU student walked right into that shitstorm with his shoe polish proudly applied, while the lily white campus was “hosting a symposium(in collaboration with historically black Morgan State University) on the 50th anniversary of the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” And that’s just tip of the Jolson Iceberg when it comes to blackface (and yellow face, and sexy Natives, etc) on our colleges.
I just don’t get it. I feel like I missed class on the day they taught “White Supremacy 101” in school. It would never have occurred to me that it was OK to go all Amos and Andy at ANY POINT of what I feel was an adequately misspent youth. I feel certain that the Jesuits at ST X who taugth me to be a “man for others,” would have kicked my ass up and down North Bend road for pulling that shit.
As it stands today it looks like Twerk-it Ralph is gonna hold on to his job for now. As a Democrat I would prefer he step down, but considering the scandals brewing beneath him and the short attention span of the media in the age of Trump he’ll probably be able to ride this out. Which is too bad. We gained a lot of credibility when Al Franken was pushed into stepping down because he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. When we let our own get away with shit like this we feed into the conservative propaganda that anti-racism is just a mask we put on when we want to chastise conservatives, one we gleefully discard when the camera’s turn off, proving that we’re the “real racists.”
We should be better than that.