Would every white Virginian who has not “blacked up” please come forward?

America’s racist history is repeating itself as farce in the southern state

February 08, 2019
Photo: Brian Cahn/Zuma Press/PA Images
Photo: Brian Cahn/Zuma Press/PA Images
No matter how much Americans hate this idea, the past is never dead. Nor is it past. Especially in the grand old Commonwealth of Virginia, the first English colony in North America, the cradle of presidents, and now the place where America’s racist history has come back to bite us on the bum.

Ralph Northam, Virginia’s newly-elected governor, may be forced to resign. A conservative news site unearthed a truly ghastly photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook (Northam is a pediatrician) of one white man in minstrel show makeup standing next to another man in Ku Klux Klan robes and hood.

Northam’s handling of this was about as graceful as a greased pig on a polished floor. First he told the world that yes, alas, he was the blackface guy. Or maybe the Klan guy. He wasn’t sure. But he was very, very sorry. Then a couple of days later, he held a news conference to say that, upon reflection, he’d decided he wasn’t either of those guys were him. However, he had indeed appeared in blackface in 1984, dressed up as Michael Jackson for a dance contest. He’d learned to moonwalk, you see: “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,” Northam said.“The reason I used a very little bit is because, I don't know if anybody's ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off.”

Both Virginia’s United States senators as well as many in its congressional delegation immediately urged Northam to resign and allow Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who is African American and also said Northam should resign, to take over as governor.

No sooner than the newspapers began running stories on how Fairfax would become Virginia’s second black governor, Big League Politics, the same online site that outed Northam, reported accusations that Fairfax sexually assaulted a political science professor in 2004. Fairfax says it was a consensual encounter. She says he lured her to his hotel room “to retrieve documents,” began kissing her, then forced himself on her. The National Organisation for Women, Hillary Clinton, and presidential candidate Julian Castro, among others, are calling for him to step down, too.

If Fairfax goes, next in line to be governor would be Attorney General Mark Herring, generally considered a safe pair of hands. Or he was, until he came forward to declarethat in 1980, he, too, put on blackface and dressed up as rapper Kurtis Blow at a University of Virginia student party.

All three of these are Democrats—the party which prides itself on being “woke.” The party which regularly accuses Republicans of racism; the party which chose Stacey Abrams, a rising Democratic star who also happens to be African American, to deliver the “response” to Donald Trump’s recent State of the Nation address.

Gleeful Republicans lost no chance to remind everyone that in the 19thcentury, Democrats were the party of slavery while they were the party of Lincoln the liberator. They hope that this avalanche of embarrassment brings down the entire Democrat-run government of Virginia. If Northam, Fairfax, and Herring all resign, the next in line for the governorship would be Kirk Cox, the Republican Speaker of the state House of Delegates.

While no one has—as yet—accused Cox of gross racial idiocy, it’s now been reported the top Republican in the state senate presided over a college publication bursting with backwardness: references to “Chinks” and “Japs,” sexist “humour,” and loads of young chaps in blackface.

One wonders if it might not be quicker if every Virginian who has not 1. blacked up; or 2. been accused of sexual assault, came forward.

Blackface goes back to when white performers would darken their faces with burnt cork. This passed for popular entertainment in American till at least the 1920s. Obviously, some people still think it’s a hoot. Florida’s recently installed secretary of state stepped down when photos from 2005 emerged of him in blackface, a head-rag, and falsies. He says he went to a Halloween party as a “Hurricane Katrina victim.” There are plenty of other examples, all across the nation.

But in Virginia, the issue of race is particularly raw. No one has forgotten the 2017 Charlottesville riots during which “Blood and soil!” chanting white supremacists killed one woman and injured dozens of other counter-protestors. And 2019 is the 400th anniversary of African Slavery in what would become the United States. In 1619, English privateers brought 20 Angolan slaves to the Jamestown colony. Millions followed, crammed into the holds of ships from west Africa. After the south seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy in 1861, the Virginian aristocrat Robert E. Lee became its top military leader, and after Montgomery, Alabama was deemed too hot and too lacking in comfortable hotels, Richmond, Virginia became the Confederacy’s capital city. Practically every inch of Virginia was either plantation land or a Civil War battlefield or both.

Virginia Democrats ran in the 2018 elections on a platform of overcoming the state’s long, racially-vexed history, and voters rewarded them with more state and national officials than they’d won in years. Now, in the run-up to the 2020 general election, Republicans smell blood.

Yet it may be all right in the end for Virginia Democrats. As of this writing, Gov. Ralph Northam is still hanging on, hoping that all these other race scandals will eclipse or soften his, perhaps counting on the president of the United States to say or do something so atrocious that his star turn as Michael Jackson will soon be forgotten.