Virginias painful blackface past and present

Protests in Richmond Virginia calling for Governor Northam to resignImage copyright
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Protests in Richmond have called for Governor Northam to resign

Ask Virginians what they feel about current scandal engulfing state politics and one reaction is common: the exasperated exhale.

Where do you even begin with the past eight days? First came racist photos were uncovered on Governor Ralph Northam’s 1980s college yearbook page. Then Attorney General Mark Herring, a fellow Democrat, admitted dressing up in blackface as a student. Then the head of the state’s Republicans, Tommy Norment, was found to have edited a 1968 college publication filled with racist slurs and blackface photos.

This stung hard in Virginia and especially in Richmond, the state capital. Its history is painful. It was once the capital of the confederacy, the southern allegiance that fought for slavery to be retained.

This year – the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slaves in the country – had been earmarked as the year of reconciliation and civility.

‘How do you fix it?’

On Thursday, students, community and religious leaders and members of the general public were reflecting on the news at a special church service at the Virginia Union University – an historically black university.

It was a full-house at the campus chapel. The star speaker was Reverend Al Sharpton, a New York-based civil rights veteran and former adviser to President Barack Obama.

Malika Fowler, a university senior, said she wanted to hear the reverend’s take on recent events. “I feel like it [racism] has been going on for years and now everybody is now getting to a point where they feel like they can say something, or try and fix it. But … how do you fix it? That’s the question,” she said.

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Viriginia student Malika Fowler says blackface is really disrespectful and the recent stories have shocked her

Reverend Sharpton gave a rousing speech, drawing claps, cheers and a standing ovation, as he called for Mr Northam to step down. He also addressed one of the major talking points: is there any distinction between the two blackface incidents in the governor’s past?

The first leaked image showed two young men – one dressed in minstrel-style blackface, the other dressed in the ultimate symbol of white supremacy, a Ku Klux Klan hood. The picture was taken when Mr Northam was a medical student, aged 24 in 1984. After it suddenly came to light last week, he first apologised, then said he couldn’t be in the photo as he didn’t remember it clearly.

The second incident – which he has confessed to – was in the same year, when he “darkened his face as part of a Michael Jackson costume”.

For Reverend Sharpton, the situation is clear: neither is acceptable – now or then. He told the crowd he once joined Michael Jackson on tour in the 80s, when the singer was surrounded by fans who idolised him. They wore the glove, they wore his jackets, but he never saw anyone in blackface. “This is not just a cultural thing, like some of us once wore bell-bottom pants,” he said.

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The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School

The state attorney general has used a similar defence in his back story, saying he blacked his face to portray rapper Kurtis Blow because he was a fan.

Outside the chapel, student Emmanuel Antwi Jr shook his head at the thought. “You could’ve did without the facepaint … Put a chain on, put on grills, put your hat on backwards … The point of blackface is to basically make fun of black people.”

Many are particularly disappointed because when Mr Northam was elected in 2017, it came after running on a platform for increased diversity and inclusion.

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Student Kiara Truluck: “Little kids look up to other people, so if they see the person that’s in charge, no matter what year it was, it’s wrong”

Why is this such a big deal in Virginia?

Reverend Ben Campbell, author of the book Richmond’s Unhealed History, told the BBC racism in Virginia still runs very deep and only the surface is dealt with. “Segregation didn’t end 50 years ago. We got rid of the language and the way to name it, but it didn’t end it.”

He cited poor black areas in Richmond that have been excluded from the public transport system. “You don’t have to call it segregated education if you have school line drawn around a black neighbourhood. You don’t have to call it segregated housing if the entry price for a neighbourhood excludes black people.”

He feels that until recently a blackface photo would have been treated as a footnote. “Now has emerged as a symbolic thing and it has energy, just like with the statues.”

He was referring to the country’s ongoing debate about whether to remove monuments glorifying Confederate generals. This polemic led to the notorious far-right rally in nearby Charlottesville in 2017, which resulted in the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer.

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The Washington Post via Getty Images

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A statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson on Richmond’s Monument Avenue

Christy Coleman, the African-American chief executive of the American Civil War Museum, knows all too well the difficulties about dealing with the past, although she said this is not just a southern problem.

“The stains of white supremacy are national. Bur Virginia stands out as the capital of the confederacy – its cornerstone was a belief that white people were superior and that the natural condition of black people was to be controlled,” she said.

She added that the state has been in a process of grappling with this history, and that is why these sudden events have felt so jarring amid the conversation.

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Student Emmanuel Antwi Jr says he couldn’t work for a boss who had worn blackface

When blackface is in your past

Taking a stroll in front of the museum while the scandal was unfolding was Kenny and his wife, Terry. A right-leaning independent, and a Democrat respectively, they both think Mr Northam should resign, especially because of his lack of clarity on his involvement.

Kenny, who did not want to give his surname, admitted he dressed up as a black farmer once for a party in 1970s. “We were just having fun. And nobody said to me, that’s racist or anything like that.” He said he went to almost entirely white school in the city’s south and did “a lot of dumb stuff” in his twenties.

“I grew from that,” he said, before emphasising that he would have “NEVER” dressed up as a KKK member.

Jane and Dan Cardwell, another local retired couple, said more education, rather than resignation, was key. Mrs Cardwell, a former teacher, found the governor’s yearbook photo despicable, but wants to find a way for deeper change. “I remember my children in nursery school, elementary school, hung out with the black children in their class but by the time the kids got to middle school they all started to pull apart. What causes that? How can we make that gap end?”

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Dan and Jane Cardwell, who moved to Virginia from New Jersey 30 years ago, don’t think resignation is the answer

Unimaginable in 2019?

A group of young white students was picnicking on the grass nearby. Could they imagine a scenario where someone attended one of their parties in blackface?

“Noooooo!” was the instant, collective response.

These days the backlash is swift. In 2016, when a music booker dressed in blackface for a Halloween party in a Richmond bar, Balliceaux, there was an outcry. He apologised, resigned from the bar and said the episode would “haunt him for the rest of his days”.

Will the governor step down too? The story is further complicated by his potential successor having been accused of sexual assault (allegations he denies). Third-in-line would be the attorney general who dressed as Kurtis Blow. Fourth-in-line is the Republican house speaker, who got his position after a majority race so tight that it was decided by literally picking a name out of a hat.

Anger, however, was not the widespread emotion on the streets of Richmond. It was more sadness and disappointment. Some were surprised by the massive outcry. Some didn’t want to talk about it. Most seemed willing to try to unpick it, as a way to move forward.

“It’s bewildering and extremely depressing,” said Reverend Chapman. “Does it have a transformational value? I just don’t know yet.”

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