It is a shame that we are now almost 20 years into the 21st Century, and there are still whites in America who think that wearing Blackface is humorous and acceptable.
In case you missed it, Virginia’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam came under intense fire yesterday when it was revealed that during his medical student days at Eastern Virginia Medical School, that he posed for the following picture of himself and a friend wearing Blackface and a Ku Klux Klan robe.
For what it’s worth, prior to entering medical school, Northam was a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, where one of his nicknames was…wait for it… “CoonMan.” Remember, old school racists, would interpose the n-word with apes, alligators, coons and possums to denigrate black people.
But as is typical these days, the politics of the Northam incident are already hijacking the narrative; to me, politics be damned–the medical school yearbook photo is vile, racist and disgusting. That Northam is already being defended by political supporters who claim that “boys will be boys” adds further insult when considering that a medical school student is a fully grown man who should have known better.
Even more troubling is hearing and reading some fellow Democrats defend Northam by calling this a “Republican hit job” fueled by the same folks who rarely attack members of their own party, including President Donald Trump, for racist comments or acts. News flash–from time immemorial, whether it was the Whigs, the Federalists, Democrats, Republicans and lesser parties old and new, racism is racism is racism and must be called out whenever it rears its ugly head.
I have very little doubt that had Gov. Northam’s yearbook picture featured him and his friend wearing a Nazi SS officer’s uniform and the tattered clothing of a concentration camp victim, that his resignation would have been secured–post-haste.
But this is America, and in America, the legacy of slavery and its attendant miseries, including rank disrespect of blacks across the Diaspora, are par for the course.
You see, at the core of white systemic racism has always been the mind-set that Africans and their American born descendants are sub-human. Blackface has its roots in these beliefs, and in 18th Century plays in Europe and the Americas, white actors often used black shoe polish and ruby-red lipstick to exaggerate the physical features of the very black men and women they pretended to imitate.
Thomas Rice, a white American comedian in the early 1800s, garnered international fame for a song that he claimed to write, “Jump Jim Crow.” While performing in London to far greater applause than the local Shakespearean fare, the Times said of Rice: “Mr. Rice, whose Jim Crow has insured his reputation in every street of the metropolis, and whose admirable representation of the negroes of the United States has raised a host of imitators, is the hero of these black burlettas…There is something in his chuckle which is not to be described, but which is equally rich, veracious, and inimitable. He has the faculty of twisting his limbs in such a manner as to represent the distortions of an ill grown African, and the very tibia of his legs appear to shape themselves in aid of his endeavours.”
You see, the majority of Antebellum whites in America truly believed the false narrative that enslaved blacks were “happy” with their enslavement. Many mistook the convivial plantation dances, robust spiritual services, and the “mask that grins and lies” as black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar inscribed, for true felicitation–never realizing that most of those enslaved blacks hated both master and missy, despised the brutal overseers, and detested a system that prevented them from “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
After the end of Slavery and Reconstruction, as the formerly rebellious Confederates took over southern statehouses, new state constitutions were written that rendered freed blacks second class citizens well into the late 1960s. That the words “Jim Crow” were used to describe these laws is telling; it tells the false belief that white folks held that the masses of black folks fully supported the legal separation of the races.
Such is how Blackface and caricatures stayed popular in the earliest days of Hollywood and pop culture. Lest we forget that Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, a history professor before entering politics, declared the false narratives about Reconstruction and the KKK being heroes who killed black men for attacking white women in D. W. Griffith’s virulently racist film “The Birth of a Nation” was “like writing history with lightning:”
Al Jolson was equally deplorable–as were those whites who flocked to see and popularize the Blackface film “The Jazz Singer.”
Nor should we forget Blackface children’s books from this era that denigrated blacks while reinforcing false notions of racial superiority among white children:
Speaking of kids, we would be remiss if we did not note that popular cartoons that ran well into the 1980s, like Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, reinforced Blackface caricatures, too.
20th Century Americana was filled with lawn jockeys, posters, ads, and figurines featuring black caricatures–some of these items are still on display in homes and businesses across the nation.
And yes, the fact that these caricatures still linger in the minds of some white Americans was even evident last fall when Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, who is black, was subjected to racist robo-calls in broken English exclaiming “Well, hello there. I is the negro Andrew Gillum and I be aksin you to make me gub-er-nor of dis here state of Florida.”
Or, just yesterday, when former New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, and liberal CNN host Chris Cuomo, called Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker “articulate,” as if the New Jersey Senator–a Rhodes Scholar and star football player at Stanford University–would be anything other than well-spoken. I have not forgotten that former Vice President (and rumored 2020 presidential aspirant) Joe Biden gave similarly ignorant remarks about then Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, saying “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Based on Biden’s logic, I suppose Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson were ugly, inarticulate, dim and dirty black presidential aspirants?
So, count me among those unwilling to give Gov. Northam a pass for his racist past. On social media, I blasted now former Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel last week when he resigned when photos surfaced of him wearing Blackface back in the day:
Similarly, I will spare Gov. Northam no quarter simply because he is a Democrat and apologized. Apology accepted, sir–as will your resignation be accepted upon tender!