The Virginia Scandals: The Resurfacing Act of Blackface

Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 Yearbook Picture

Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 Yearbook Picture

Virginia has been under a lot of heat these past few weeks and for good measure. The numerous political scandals that occurred almost two weeks ago began when a photograph of Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam resurfaced from his 1984 yearbook, showing two individuals: one in blackface and the second wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Initially when the scandal broke—resulting in public scrutiny—Northam apologized for posing in blackface. The next day, however, he denied that it was him in the photograph, but admitted to wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume. 

The next few days following the outbreak of Northam’s racist yearbook picture, several members of the Virginia and National Democratic parties called for his resignation. The governor had a different viewpoint regarding his resignation: “Virginia needs someone who is strong … and who has a moral compass. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.”  

The wrongdoings in Virginia don’t stop with Northam unfortunately. Closely following the initial scandal, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Northam’s successor, was publicly accused by Vanessa Tyson for sexual assaulting her fifteen years prior. Fairfax has repeatedly denied these allegations, claiming it was consensual. 

Lastly, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he wore blackface to a party in 1980. Herring acknowledged his actions after rumors regarding his use of blackface began circulating at the Capitol. He would become the next governor of Virginia if Northam and Fairfax both resigned. 

These three public embarrassments have left the Democratic party speechless and fearful of the consequences these politicians have unleashed onto the political party as a whole. Additionally, Northam and Herring have ignited a familiar discussion of blackface and why it keeps re-emerging throughout modern history, specifically in politics. 

Blackface first emerged in the early 1800s, beginning with white actors putting shoe polish or burned cork on their face to imitate, as well as stereotype, slaves. It was specifically depicted in film and continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Blackface then emerged itself into a modern version: Halloween costumes. According to a study released by Pew Research Centermore than a third of Americans do not think it is offensive for white people to darken their skin to portray black individuals as a costume. 

Araziel Jackson, a 19-year-old LIM sophomore originally from Connecticut, has a different viewpoint as a woman of color. “[Blackface used for costumes] is racist because history tells us that blackface originated from white actors portraying black people as ones to do barbaric acts such as sexually assaulting women. This racial depiction fueled white Americans’ belief that black people were inferior,” Jackson explains. “Blackface is a reminder of how we were viewed by white people and is a tactic they used to build their superiority complex. In order to combat racism, people need to understand what it is and what it looks like, and blackface is exactly what it looks like.”

Blackface has a long history of resurfacing in American politics, and many politicians have either admitted to it or have been accused through past pictures without facing long term repercussions in their political career.

This correlates with the fact that blackface is considered overdone by many and the seriousness does not resonate with many Americans. In an interview with Isaac Chotiner from The New Yorker, Eric Lott, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and an author, described his initial reaction to Northam’s picture, “Here we go again. [Blackface] never seems to die as a collegiate, fraternity activity…which follows on the very long history of both Hollywood and vaudeville stage performance going back into the early nineteenth century.”

On the contrary, the media has it’s eye on Virginia and these scandals are just the beginning of a nationwide conversation about the importance of acknowledging blackface and the impact it has on the black community.