Northam’s ugly yearbook photo and the racist origins of blackface

Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School in which two people are wearing blackface and a KKK costume. Obtained by The Washington Post.

The racism was present the moment he took the stage.

Using something black to darken his face, Thomas Dartmouth Rice didn’t hold back in his singsong performances, which date to the 1830s. The white man danced like a buffoon and spoke with an exaggerated imitation of black slave vernacular to entertain his audiences.

His fictional character also had a name: “Jim Crow.”

David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum in Michigan, noted how Jim Crow and other performances featuring white men in blackface captivated white crowds up until the mid-20th century.

Now blackface is back in the spotlight after a photograph emerged Friday from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page. It shows one man in blackface standing beside another figure in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

The governor, a Democrat, apologized for the photograph on his yearbook page that is “clearly racist and offensive.” But a flood of prominent Democrats and Republicans began calling for his resignation.

On Saturday, Northam refused to resign and said he’d never seen the photo in the yearbook before Friday. “I am not the person in that photo,” he said at a press conference, though he also described darkening his face to impersonate Michael Jackson for a dance contest in San Antonio.

Historians remind us that while blackface is considered “clearly racist” now, it was once celebrated.

“Professional blackface minstrelsy was considered a uniquely American contribution to world culture,” said Rhae Lynn Barnes, a Princeton professor working on a book about blackface. “Before the civil rights movement, making fun of African-Americans was synonymous with American patriotism.”

Blackface dates to the era of minstrel shows, or “minstrelsy,” in the early 1800s. Intended to be comedic, minstrel shows were first performed in New York with white actors who wore tattered clothing and used shoe polish to blacken their faces in a stereotypical depiction of Africans enslaved in the United States, according to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The performances, the museum explains, “cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core. By distorting the features and culture of African Americans – including their looks, language, dance, deportment, and character – white Americans were able to codify whiteness across class and geopolitical lines as its antithesis.”

When blackface was used in the first minstrel shows, it was done “to depict false stereotypes of black people: the big lips, the lack of education, the poor clothing,” Daryl Davis, a black blues musician known for his efforts to befriend and convert members of the Ku Klux Klan, said in an interview.

“It wasn’t about trying to look black, but trying to look black in a way that portrays blacks negatively,” he added.

Pilgrim notes that Rice was not the first white comic to perform in blackface but was the most popular of his time. As a result of Rice’s success, Jim Crow became a “common stage persona for white comedians’ blackface portrayals of African-Americans,” he said. In his Jim Crow persona, Rice also sang “Negro ditties” such as “Jump Jim Crow.”

Later, the phrase Jim Crow became a shorthand for the racist laws used throughout the South to segregate black people after emancipation.

Davis, however, has long argued that context is key when judging the use of blackface. In the 1900s, for example, white artists such as Al Jolson painted their faces as they performed ragtime and blues music pioneered by African-Americans.

He credits Jolson with spreading black music to white audiences and advocating for black artists. Other historians say blackface is always racist, no matter who is wearing it or why.

But in the case of Northam, Davis said, the context is clear: “It doesn’t matter if the photo was from 1984, 1974 or 2004. He defined what he meant when he paired blackface with a Klan hood. Racial segregation. Racial supremacy. When you have a symbol associated with hate from the beginning, you are saying exactly what you mean.”

In the internet age, social media has fueled furors over blackface. In 2018, a photo of an Iowa teacher who darkened her face to appear as a Lafawnduh, a black character in the 2004 movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” went viral just as NBC talk show host Megyn Kelly was coming under fire for defending the use of blackface in Halloween costumes.

“In today’s climate, blackface is never appropriate,” said Mia Moody-Ramirez, a Baylor University professor and author of “From Blackface to Black Twitter.”

Just last week, photos surfaced of Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel wearing blackface with red lipstick and a New Orleans Saints bandanna in 2005. He also wore a shirt that read “Katrina Victim.”

“There’s nothing I can say,” Ertel told the Tallahassee Democrat. He submitted his resignation that day.

Historian Arica L. Coleman, author of “That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia,” said Northam needs to step down as well.

“People think this man in blackface serves as the litmus test for racism. Yes, it is racism. Racism is overt but it is also subtle, Coleman said. “This particular incident, as bad as it is, does not obliterate the subtle ways racism is reinforced by our political system and the way systemic racism continues to be propped up and supported by both Democrats and Republicans.”

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