Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) is caught in controversy after a photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page featuring a man in blackface and another in a KKK uniform went viral on Feb. 1.
Initially, on Feb. 1 Governor Northam admitted to appearing in the photo. He issued an apology, stating in a press conference, “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military, in medicine and in public service. But I want to be clear, I understand how this decision shakes Virginians’ faith in that commitment.”
Governor Northam did not clarify in this statement whether he was the man in blackface or in the KKK uniform. The photo is featured on a yearbook page with Governor Northam’s name on top, alongside other pictures of him. Following the press conference, Governor Northam faced backlash from other politicians, calling for him to resign. Among those calling for his resignation are Virginia’s senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder and Hillary Clinton.
But on the following day, Feb. 2, Northam backtracked. He denied that he was one of the men depicted in the yearbook photo. He said that he did not actually see the yearbook photo of himself when he apologized the day before. In the press conference, he said, “In the hours since I made my statement yesterday, I reflected with my family and classmates from the time and affirmed my conclusion that I am not the person in that photo.”
‘Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship, and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence.’
However, Governor Northam did admit in the press conference that he has worn blackface before, specifically when he dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest, which was also in 1984. Governor Northam described using shoe polish on his face for this event. Despite the controversy and calls to resign, Governor Northam insists that he will finish out his term.
If Governor Northam does resign, however, his successor Justin Fairfax would be Virginia’s second black governor. Fairfax is a descendant of slaves, has been outspoken on racial issues in the past and has refused to pay tribute to Confederates Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. However, Fairfax is currently facing controversy as well for allegedly committing sexual assault in 2004 and allegedly committing a rape in 2000.
Along with Governor Northam, other prominent political figures are facing blackface controversy as well. On Feb. 6, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) of Virginia stated that he also had participated in blackface in college. On Feb. 7, controversy began for Senator Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R) who was the managing editor in his yearbook that featured racial slurs and photos of students in blackface.
Blackface has a history beginning in minstrel shows in the early 1830s. According to research done by the news site Vox, “In the mid to late 19th century, white actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage.”
Expert David Leonard explains in his essay, “Just Say No To Blackface: Neo Minstrelsy and the Power to Dehumanize” that, “Blackface is part of a history of dehumanization, of denied citizenship and of efforts to excuse and justify state violence. From lynchings to mass incarceration, whites have utilized blackface (and the resulting dehumanization) as part of its moral and legal justification for violence.”
There’s a common misconception that minstrel shows ended in the 19th century. The British TV show “The Black and White Minstrel Show” aired on BBC until 1978.
Alexis Lincoln is a third-year student majoring in English writing with a minor in journalism. AL892562@wcupa.edu