Blackface Saga Gives Virginia a Black Eye

photo from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's 1984 yearbook page

photo from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's 1984 yearbook page
If you’re not from Virginia, or haven’t lived in the Old Dominion for any significant amount of time, then you’re probably wondering how a Democrat governor of that state could have once donned blackface and not understand the ramifications at the time, or even decades later. I’ll offer some possible explanations in a moment, but first, a bit of background.

In 1984, a 25-year-old Dr. Ralph Northam submitted a number of photos to be included on his personal page in the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. Among those photos was a man in blackface and another man standing beside him wearing a KKK hood and robe. Earlier this month, following Governor Northam’s support for a bill that would ease restrictions on late-term abortions, the conservative website, released the 34-year-old racist photo, and suddenly Virginia’s chief executive found himself embroiled in the worst political scandal since Chuck Robb confessed to receiving an extra-marital massage.

Soon after the Washington Post confirmed the authenticity of’s find, Northam issued a written apology for appearing in the Jim Crow photo. But the next day, the Governor called a press conference to say that he wasn’t in the photo, and didn’t know how it even got on his yearbook page. No one was buying Ralph’s reversal, especially when it was revealed that his nickname at VMI was “coon man”. But things got worse when he admitted to having donned blackface while imitating Michael Jackson for a 1984 dance competition.

Following that racially tone-deaf press conference, elected officials from both parties were calling for Northam to resign, including Virginia’s white, Democrat Attorney General Mark Herring. But several days later, in a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black, Herring admitted that he too had once appeared in blackface while pretending to be a rap star. All this comes on the heels of Congressman Steve King’s defense of white nationalism, the violence in Charlottesville, and rallies to tear down Confederate monuments, including at least three of which were located here in North Carolina.

So why the burgeoning blackface epidemic among Virginia politicians? Perhaps William Elwood’s statement to WHSV-TV says it best. Elwood, who was the page designer for Northam’s medical school yearbook, said that the 1984 edition featured a number of similarly racist photos, but, “nobody thought of that as a significant problem back then.”

Back “THEN?”

We’re talking about 1984, not 1884. We’re talking about a time when the Rev. Jesse Jackson was making his first pzresidential run, and Doug Wilder was starting on his path to become Virginia’s first African-American to be elected lieutenant governor, then governor.

Northam and Herring are not stupid people, and they probably aren’t racists.

But they are, at the very least, insensitive to the feelings of people who don’t look like them. It’s an insensitivity that is borne out of centuries of racial prejudice, beginning with white slave traders in Jamestown 400 years ago, and continuing onto the Civil War, during which time, Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy. This systematic insensitivity was memorialized in the early 20th century when a series of statues of Confederate generals was erected along Monument Avenue, then dredged up in 1996 when whites fought against putting a statue of Arthur Ashe on that same street. Back then Wayne Byrd, president of the Heritage Preservation Association said the Ashe statue didn’t belong on Monument Avenue because it is “hallowed ground.”

To be fair, Northam and Herring are also products of our society’s historically mixed messages when it comes to race. After all, both white and black performers appeared in blackface during 19th-century minstrel shows. In the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, a number of A-list, non-bigoted film stars like Fred Astaire and Judy Garland sang and danced in blackface. In 1976, Richard Pryor applied shoe polish to Gene Wilder in Silver Streak, and in 1993 Whoopi Goldberg, herself a social activist, had no problem when her boyfriend Ted Danson dressed in blackface during a Friar’s Roast in her honor. Spike Lee did the deed in 2000’s Bamboozled, and in 2008, Robert Downey, Jr. drew high praise from black celebrities when he donned blackface in the film Tropic Thunder. But mixed messages or not, Virginia’s governor and attorney general shouldn’t have been unprepared for the visceral reaction to their decades-old indiscretions, especially after media darling Megyn Kelley was fired last year by NBC for having appeared in blackface. What’s changed in Virginia and throughout the nation is that we are now in an era of zero tolerance when it comes to racist behavior by public figures.

It remains to be seen whether Northam and Herring will resign, or if other elected officials will start coming forward with their racially-charged past indiscretions. Time will tell. Meanwhile, if you come across a white guy who admits to having worn blackface, feel free to call him the “N” word: “Nitwit”.


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