Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has helped the country kick-off Black History Month with yet another difficult conversation about race.
At issue was the surprise revelation of a photo from his page in his 1984 medical school yearbook, featuring a man dressed in blackface, another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan uniform. Which one was he?
On Friday night, Northam issued a video claiming responsibility for the image and apologizing. But on Saturday, he held a press conference to share a different story. After reflection, he decided he was neither man in the photo, though he confessed to being guilty of some other blackface shenanigans. During the same era, he may have darkened his skin to perform as Michael Jackson at a dance competition. If not for his wife, Northam seemed prepared to moonwalk for the reporters as proof.
It was painful to watch unfold.
“In some ways, my personal history mirrors that of this commonwealth,” Northam said on Saturday. “There are actions and behaviors in my past that were hurtful. But, like Virginia, I have also made significant progress in how I approach these issues,” he said.
It’s also the kind of history which makes the festive racism evidenced by not one but two blackface photos in his yearbook possible.
It’s worth noting that the yearbook in question was compiled by adults who were also highly trained medical students. On the subject of progress, the math is fairly straightforward for skeptics – if you’re unprepared to see the racism while yukking it up at a kegger, you’re unprepared to see the racism in a health system that consistently delivers substandard care to people of color.
It’s also worth noting that blackface has an unusually problematic history in Virginia.
Rhae Lynn Barnes, an assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University and author of a forthcoming book on the history of blackface and minstrelsy, tackles the subject in this must-read opinion piece.
Amateur minstrel shows were an important way to reinforce the status of white people who felt under siege after the Civil War ended. “[The shows] featured fictionalized blackface slaves and their Klansman counterparts — a pairing on display in the Northam photo — to sustain Virginia’s infrastructure and segregated economy, as well as to inculcate new generations into a form of white supremacy associated with collegiality, school spirit and patriotism,” she writes.
Minstrelsy is so deeply embedded in the University of Virginia’s history, for example, that their yearbook is called Corks and Curls, named for the burnt corks used to darken faces and the curly wigs used to mock African American hair. (No, I’m not kidding.) The yearbook, founded in 1888, was discontinued for financial reasons in 2008. It has since been resurrected, name and all, by the school’s alumni association.
So, in 2017, it was an echo of an ugly past when white, clean-cut types brought burning torches, hate speech, and deadly violence to the UVA’s backyard to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Northam ran against a candidate who was known for inflammatory and racist rhetoric; it was this tension that Northam was, in part, tapped to combat.
Now, nearly every Democratic operative and elected official has asked Northam to step down. I think he should take those calls seriously. Not that he doesn’t deserve grace. He does. Not that he shouldn’t be allowed to evolve. He should. Not that he doesn’t still have a role to play in public life. I’m sure he does.
But the photos, the blackface, and the culture that permitted them should have been fodder for meaningful conversation long before now. Northam’s tortured reversal this weekend indicates to me that he’s not yet fluent in the language of race and reconciliation. And we need people in power who are.
Should Northam step down, Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax is poised to take his place. Fairfax is currently the only black official serving the state, and the second African American elected to statewide office in Virginia.
He’s also been a quiet model for truth-to-power integrity. He took his oath of office with a copy of the manumission documents that freed his ancestor, Simon Fairfax, in his breast pocket. And, he politely and unabashedly sat out the state’s annual Robert E. Lee tribute.
There’s a political element behind the revelation of the photos, so I’ll leave the horse race talk to others. But from a leadership perspective, one thing is clear: Personal evolution never comes at a convenient time.
I know that there are plenty of people who are not sure if there is a photo of them waiting to surface, grinning and surrounded by the corked and curled, everyone in on the joke. At some point, I guess, racism becomes old-fashioned wallpaper that people forget is there.
But papering over the good old days has led to a painful present, and an overdue conversation about who gets punished in school, who gets put into prison, who survives childbirth, who succeeds in corporate environments and who can be a governor. Joining these inconvenient and uncomfortable conversations is part of everyone’s job description.
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