February has been a hellish month for my home state of Virginia. The state has been hit with a storm of scandals that have rocked the political hierarchy. First, there was the revelation that Governor Ralph Northam had worn blackface in the past when a photo surfaced from his medical yearbook. He offered an apology but then came a reversal, as Northam ignored calls for his resignation. Another admittance of blackface followed suit by a different top state leader — Attorney General Mark Herring. And on top of all this, Lieutenant Governor Justin E. Fairfax, Northam’s designated successor, faced two allegations of past sexual assault during the same week. (The Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General rank in the top five most powerful leaders in the Virginia state government — all three positions are currently held by Democrats clouded in scandal). While the sexual assault allegations add to the ongoing conversation during this #MeToo era, the blackface confessions have reignited conversations about racism we thought we no longer needed. All of this happened during African-American history month. Virginia is not doing well.
An Inescapable History
The magnitude of the state’s systemic history of racism and mistreatment of African-Americans cannot be summarized in a few paragraphs. It is a shameful and ongoing story stained with centuries of slavery, slews of Jim Crow laws and the 2017 white nationalist rally that turned deadly. The remnants are there: I often drive on what was, until recently, known as Jefferson Davis Highway or spot Confederate flags around me. On the capital’s main road, Monument Avenue, enormous statues of Confederate soldiers cast haunting shadows down at passersby, reminding them of a not-so-distant past.
Yet my state has come a long way, and it is one I am proud to call home. Virginia regards itself as a political outlier in the South and a vessel of change of which Ralph Northam has often been the captain. College Democrats member Jacob Maguire ’21 noted the commendable shift in Virginia politics in the past 10 years, citing the three Democratic women who were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives this year as evidence of Virginia’s growing progressivism. The state supported Barack Obama twice and Hillary Clinton for president and elected America’s first ever elected black governor in 1985.
Virginia runs through my blood. Both of my parents attended the University of Virginia, my siblings went to college in-state and my sister’s boyfriend is a student at the medical school Northam attended. This progressive yet historic place raised me — it is where I caught lighting bugs and relished snow days, visited presidents’ estates and waited for Septembers to come. Our state motto is “Virginia is for Lovers,” an ethos sadly incongruent with hateful acts like Northam’s. As Virginia faces intense scrutiny for a dismal past, I find myself reexamining my perception of the state as a progressive-minded “New South” haven. But in all this darkness I am desperately searching for some tint of light. Ergo, I seek to find a silver lining from these heartbreaking headlines from Virginia.
What is Blackface?
Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by performers, often white, to represent a caricature of an African American. In 2019 (as well as in 1984 when Northam acknowledges donning blackface for a Michael Jackson costume), society largely understands that blackface is unambiguously racist. For most, however, this is where our knowledge ceases. The offence is often tucked away, better kept where we do not have to see its blatant racial ugliness. It is usually not in our textbooks; rarely do students learn much about it in schools. But if any good can come out of Virginia’s current disaster, it will be a recognition and increased education about blackface and its existence in the past and present. As we condemn Northam and Herring for racism, it is important we do justice to our testimony and educate ourselves about the practice and why it is such a painful mark on African American history.
Blackface minstrelsy emerged in the United States in the 1830s and quickly became a popular form of entertainment in the country during the 19th century. The theatrical form was central to “how white Americans came into their own identity and worked through what it means to be white,” explained Kellen Hoxworth, a postdoctoral fellow in theater at Dartmouth. Hoxworth researches the history of blackface and his current book project, entitled “Transoceanic Blackface: Empire, Race, and Performance,” traces the formation of blackface…