Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is hanging onto his job despite increasing pressure to resign after a conservative media site last week unearthed a photo of a man in blackface, next to someone in Klan robes, on Northam’s page in his 1984 medical school yearbook.
The Democratic lawmaker says it's not him in the photo, but even if he can prove that, he's also admitted he “darkened” his face around the same time as part of a costume for a dance contest, now saying he regrets he "did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.”
Northam may not have understood that “harmful legacy” back in the '80s; plenty of people didn’t. In fact, many still don’t understand it even now.
The use of blackface dates back to the mid-1800s, when minstrelsy was a growing form of entertainment, Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, told VICE News. It was “whites dressing up and caricaturing African-Americans,” Reece said. “Mimicking their dance, their language, their music, but providing a caricature that provided comic relief for their audiences.”
The minstrelsy acts were designed to make black people “seem foolish, simple of mind, not intelligent and cheap,” Reece said. And it wasn't just in the American South. Minstrel shows could be found throughout the country for decades, Reece said, and then spread into radio, film and television, remaining popular well into the 1900s. For many whites, these characterizations were the only way they encountered cultural blackness. And those stereotypes have persisted through today.
“One way to understand how blackface and stereotypes work, particularly when you think about popular culture — it's disseminated to a mass audience. It's repetitive,” Reece said. “You see these images over and over and over again. And particularly if you don't have regular interaction with people of a different culture of a different race. You start to really lean on those images that you see in your magazines and movies and television and music as the only lens to really understand who African-American people really are.”
Hollywood may have moved away from blackface, but it has persisted in the form of Halloween costumes, internet jokes, and party tricks. A search for “fraternity blackface” on YouTube yields several local news stories about college students wearing blackface. So this isn’t a thing of the past —and it’s not something that can be separated from the past, either.
In other words: That shoe polish Northam used to darken his face for a funny dance competition in 1984 wasn’t just a prop in a joke. It’s the symbol of the idea that blackness is something that can be applied, caricatured, laughed at, and then dismissed. And it’s forcing Virginia—and the country—to grapple with that symbolism yet again.
“When we wrestle with that history and really start to understand it,” Reece said, “I believe that's the first step to really ridding ourselves of these images, and the hurtful statements that they make.”
This segment originally aired February 5, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.