Historian: Americans Must Face Violent History of Blackface Amid Virginia Gov. Racist Photo Scandal

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We discuss the history behind calls for Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign after a photo surfaced on his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page showing a man wearing blackface posing next to a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. The yearbook also features an image of a white man in a wig, dress and black face. The photo’s caption reads, “'Baby Love,' who ever thought Diana Ross would make it to Medical School!” Another photo in the yearbook shows three men in blackface. We are joined by Rhae Lynn Barnes, assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface.” Her new article for The Washington Post is headlined “The troubling history behind Ralph Northam’s blackface Klan photo.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to discuss the history behind calls for Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to resign after the photo surfaced in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page showing a man wearing blackface next to a man in Ku Klux Klan regalia. Northam apologized for the photo Friday. Then, the next day, at a news conference, he walked back his statements and said neither of the men in the photo were him.

The photo Northam is facing backlash for is not the only racist image in the yearbook. The annual yearbook also features an image of a white man in a wig, dress and blackface. The photo’s caption reads, “'Baby Love,' who ever thought Diana Ross would make it to Medical School!” unquote. Another photo in the medical school yearbook shows three men in blackface.

Well, for more, we’re joined in our New York studio by Rhae Lynn Barnes, assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University, author of the forthcoming book Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface. She has just written a piece for The Washington Post headlined “The troubling history behind Ralph Northam’s blackface Klan photo.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Barnes. Describe your reaction. First day of Black History Month was Friday. That’s the day the photo appears. Talk about—put that photo, your response to Governor Northam, whether he should resign, and then the history of the use of blackface.

RHAE LYNN BARNES: Thank you for having me here this morning, Amy, because I think it’s really important that we talk about this longer history. Most Americans feel very uncomfortable when they see these photographs, but they aren’t really able to articulate why. They know that this is wrong somehow, but they don’t understand the longer history.

And ironically, this is a blowback from a civil rights victory. What I mean by that is, amateur blackface minstrelsy was the number one entertainment form throughout the 19th century and the 20th century. Blackface was used in schools. It was federalized by the U.S. government, the Works Progress Administration, during the Great Depression. During World War II, every American soldier was given a handbook about how to perform Stephen Foster music. And it was really seen as a celebratory form to understand American culture. It was a way to articulate patriotism, but also, obviously, performed very grotesque representations of African Americans. So, when I saw the photograph, I wasn’t initially surprised, because millions of Americans were taught, for most of the 20th century, that this was a positive thing.

However, that photograph was in 1984, which was substantially after the civil rights movement. And one thing that I think it’s really important to say during Black History Month is that we’re focusing so much on the governor, but this story, part of why it’s shocking is because everyday black mothers, during the civil rights movement, in the 1950s and the 1960s, fought to shut down blackface and said, “This is unacceptable.” They worked with the NAACP and said, “We need to outlaw this so that it’s no longer in our schools, it’s no longer in government spaces.” And there was a lot of pushback to these black mothers, especially from the men in the civil rights movement, who said, “We need to focus on voting rights. We need to focus on anti-lynching.” And these black mothers said, “No, my son was lynched because of these stereotypes, because of these grotesque representations that objectify African Americans. This is the thing of the thing, the seed of the seed, that allows racism to thrive in America, and it needs to be stopped.” And they were successful.

And so, because of that success, blackface has become so taboo that most Americans don’t know the through line of how and why these stereotypes were transmitted to us. But we all know the song lyrics to “Oh! Susanna,” and we know the joke “Why did the chicken cross the road?” And those are central to the history of blackface.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

RHAE LYNN BARNES: So, Stephen Foster was the number one composer, really, of the 19th century, and he wrote for the Virginia Minstrels. And a lot of the classic American songs that are in public domain—”Camptown Races,” “Oh! Susanna”—these songs are, you know, songs that we sing in preschools. They’re the background to a lot of cartoons, Warner Bros. But they’re hyperviolent, if you look at the lyrics. So, “Oh! Susanna” is actually a song about an African-American slave who is separated from his family forcibly in the internal slave market, desperately trying to get back to his family. And we think of it as this Western song or a piece of classic Americana that every American should know. And that’s really coming out of this idea in the mid-20th century that blackface was sort of the epitome of American culture that every American ought to know, which is why people of a certain generation are quite confused by the backlash now by younger generations and also people who were racially conscious since the '60s, after the civil rights movement, because they were really taught to believe that this was an accurate representation of African-American life, when it's actually the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Barnes, talk about the difference in reaction to blackface of African Americans from many white Americans.

RHAE LYNN BARNES: Sure. So, we’ve seen, even recently, the Megyn Kelly issue, where she sort of said, “I grew up with this, and it was positive, and I don’t understand the issue.” And a lot of white Americans feel that way, who came of age in a moment where this was seen as completely acceptable. What I mean by that, for—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me—let me stop you for a second, because I have this clip.

RHAE LYNN BARNES: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: In October, former Fox News and NBC journalist Megyn Kelly sparking outrage when she defended white people using blackface as part of Halloween costumes. This is Megyn Kelly questioning why blackface is considered racist, during a discussion with an all-white panel on her morning show Megyn Kelly Today.

MEGYN KELLY: But what is racist? Because—because, truly, you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween or a black person puts on whiteface for Halloween. Like, back when I was a kid, that was OK as long as you were dressing up as like a character. … There was a controversy on The Real Housewives of New York with Luann, as she dressed as Diana Ross, and she made her skin look darker than it really is, and people said that that was racist. And I don’t know. I felt like, who doesn’t love Diana Ross? She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day. And I don’t know how like that got racist on Halloween. It’s not like she’s walking around in general.

AMY GOODMAN: Megyn Kelly later apologized for the comments amidst intense backlash, including from NBC colleague Al Roker. And she eventually was pushed out of NBC. But expand on that, Professor Barnes.

RHAE LYNN BARNES: Yeah, so, one thing that I think it’s really important to understand is blackface has been intimately linked to every major form of American culture, which is why someone like Megyn Kelly thinks that this is innocuous. So, for example, the first major film, Birth of a Nation, silent film; the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, a blackface film; the first cartoon with synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse—all of that is happening to Stephen Foster songs and, you know, pretty horrific references to minstrelsy. And so, we see, over and over and over again, that advancements in American culture and technology are linked to blackface in a way that makes it celebrated. And so, by the time you get to someone like Megyn Kelly, you might have somebody whose great-grandparents, grandparents and parents were all raised to believe that this is an accurate representation of African-American life, and that by donning blackface, you are appreciating someone. She talked about Diana Ross.

But what I want to say here is, there is a massive difference between watching something and consuming it passively, and physically painting your face, learning how to walk stereotypically, speaking in dialect and imitating African Americans in a way that is very offensive. My book title, Darkology, is a reference to a common phrase that was used in amateur how-to blackface guides, which is, “darkology” is the act of learning to represent African Americans in a way that is stereotypical or comical. And it was always meant as a way to demean African Americans. And I think we can’t lose that, the fact that these were comedy shows. And so, these are things that were always intended to make fun of African Americans, not to honor them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Governor Ralph Northam’s press conference. He said he had a clear memory of not appearing in the yearbook picture in blackface, because, well, he had put on blackface on another occasion, when he was dressing as Michael Jackson.

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: While I did not appear in this photo, I am not surprised by its appearance in the EVMS yearbook. In the place and time where I grew up, many actions that we rightfully recognize as abhorrent today were commonplace. My belief that I did not wear that costume or attend that party stems in part from my clear memory of other mistakes I made in the same period of my life. That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio, in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume. I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that. It is because my memory of that episode is so vivid that I truly do not believe I am in the picture in my yearbook. You remember these things. …

I had the shoes. I had a glove. And I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put under my—or, on my cheeks. And the reason I used a very little bit is because—I don’t know if anybody has ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off. But it was a—it was a dance contest. I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest, because I had learned how to do the moonwalk.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Governor Northam. A reporter then asked him if he could do the moonwalk.

REPORTER: … dance competition?

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: Yes.

REPORTER: And it was that you danced the moonwalk?

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: That’s right.

REPORTER: Are you still able to moonwalk?

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: Uh.

PAM NORTHAM: Inappropriate circumstances.

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM: My wife says, “Inappropriate circumstances.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, he looked around to see if there was space for him to do the moonwalk, but then his wife, the first lady of Virginia, suggested he shouldn’t Rhae Lynn Barnes?

RHAE LYNN BARNES: Yeah. So, obviously, this was pretty disgusting. He clearly has not learned the depth of the racism that he actually is embodying when he does these forms.

But I think it’s important to say, while this news conference was going on, I had hundreds, literally hundreds, of Americans who wrote to me on my email account at Princeton University who were saying, “I feel so ashamed, and I feel so guilty, because when I was a child, I had to put—I had to participate in a blackface minstrel show when I was in elementary school or when I was in junior high,” or, “My mother did this, my grandfather did this, and I found the photos when I was cleaning out my attic.” And I’ve cataloged over 10,000 blackface plays that were circulated throughout the 20th century for everyday Americans.

And so, I have sort of two messages. The first is to everyday Americans: You can grow, and you can learn from this moment. And if you were required to do these in school, that’s sort of just the height of white supremacy, and it shows you how systemic this was. But it’s different for the governor. The governor represents the people of Virginia. There are 20 percent of the Virginia population who are African-American. And every American deserves to believe that their leader can look at them and feel their empathy—feel empathetic about their life. They want to see themselves in their leaders. You want to believe that if there’s a natural disaster or a catastrophe and you are impacted, that your governor is going to see you as a human being. But because blackface is about ridicule and humiliation, the NAACP used to call it “a thing apart.” It makes African Americans a thing apart from American civilization. And that’s really why the governor should resign. And if he doesn’t—I grew up in the state of California. We had a recall election. The people of Virginia have the power. They are the people. They should stand up. And if they want him gone, they should work to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Rhae Lynn Barnes, I want to thank you for being with us, assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University, author of the forthcoming book Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface. And we’ll link to your piece in The Washington Post, “The troubling history behind Ralph Northam’s blackface Klan photo.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, well, for people who experienced the polar vortex, you know how cold it was. Imagine being imprisoned, and the jail you’re in has no electricity or heat. Well, prisoners in Brooklyn, New York, didn’t have to imagine that. They experienced it. Stay with us.

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