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Blackface Hasn’t Just Returned — It Never Left

Recent instances of blackface — from Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam to Gucci’s fashion choices — only reinforce the unfailing consistency of American anti-black racism.

Posted on February 15, 2019, at 12:27 p.m. ET

Left: American singer and actor Al Jolson in blackface, circa 1930. Right: A model wears a creation as part of the Gucci women's fall/winter 2018–19 collection.
Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images; Screenshot

Left: American singer and actor Al Jolson in blackface, circa 1930. Right: A model wears a creation as part of the Gucci women's fall/winter 2018–19 collection.

In many ways, the “unknown heart” of man is at the core of the very wrong way we have come to think about and discuss modern racism.

The harshest language of racism has had its sharp edges filed down — in polite company, anyway — into rounder, more porous codewords that place the onus of proving their insidiousness onto the recipient of the slur. Contrary to the many mentions of singular racist bones and the absence thereof, racism is not tied to corporeal sinew and muscle. When Chuck Todd asked Sen. Sherrod Brown if he believed President Trump was, “in his heart, a racist” on Meet the Press, the question was not as unusually stupid as it sounded. Only this month actor Michelle Rodriguez defended Liam Neeson after he confessed, unsolicited, to prowling the streets looking for a black person to hurt after the rape of a friend. “Liam Neeson is not a racist,” Rodriguez told Vanity Fair. “Dude, have you watched Widows? His tongue was so far down Viola Davis’s throat. You can’t call him a racist ever. Racists don’t make out with the race that they hate.” She’s since apologized.

That way of thinking about racism is incredibly hard to shake, and effective in shutting down the process of atonement and growth. After all, how can you prove — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that “thug” is in fact a stand-in for the n-word (with a hard ‘er’)? How can you call a person who commits a racist act or details a racist thought “racist” when racism has been redefined as a malaise of the unknowable heart, rather than a set of actions or words that can ruin or even end lives? You can’t.

But then there’s blackface.

It is impossible to regard blackface, especially when done in the US, with its very specific history, as anything other than wildly racist. It has always been racist, and its deployment during every Halloween and fancy dress party season since Jim Crow has not made it any less so. And while there were years where it may have been less prominent — not visible in advertisements for soap in nationally syndicated magazines, or in mainstream (Academy Award–nominated) Hollywood comedies, for example — blackface has never really gone away as a mainstay of racist furniture in American consciousness. Because the power of donning blackface to demean and diminish black people has never ever gone away.

Blackface has never really gone away as a mainstay of racist furniture in American consciousness.

Blackface is on the nose, and in your face, literally. It is a blunt tool, a bone mallet in the days when scalpels have become far more commonplace. In many ways, it is the perfect vessel in which to convey anti-black bigotry, in what history will surely record as one of the more stupid ages of man. The last two decades, with emphasis on the last two years in particular, have seen a stripping away of the usual niceties as ideas of social justice and civil rights have once again resurged in mainstream discourse.

The pushback has been acute, manifesting in policy, of course, but for the everyday racist, few things are as immediate, or as well-known, or as (cheaply!) available as good ol’ blackface. While it helps, you certainly do not need to bury yourself in historical context in order to use it to inflict pain, which is neatly reminiscent of this political moment. Blackface’s enduring relevance in the sphere of racism is at a spike: the stupidest tool for the stupidest time.

In recent weeks — and still in the early days of Black History Month in the US — the rivers of historical racism in the state of Virginia burst their banks in what began to resemble parody. Ghosts of Gov. Ralph Northam’s past popped up, via a photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook featuring two people — one dressed in the hooded white robe of the KKK and the other in blackface. The initial allegation was that Northam was one of the people in the photo, dressed as either a member of the KKK or in blackface. He could not be sure which of the two he was, before it was finally determined that he was neither.

But then Northam himself admitted to having worn shoe polish on his face to look like Michael Jackson — who, considering his own storied adventures on the color wheel, the culture at least partly remembers as a solid example against the need for blackface — at a dance, and apologized while also choosing to not resign from his position. A Northam press conference following the photo’s emergence was typical until the brief moment where it looked like the governor might execute a moonwalk to illustrate some of the events of that long-ago night. Sadly we were robbed of such terrible joy by a single, heavy look from his wife, as well as a comment about “inappropriate circumstances.”

Protestors rally against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam outside of the governor's mansion in downtown Richmond on Feb. 4.
Logan Cyrus / AFP / Getty Images

Protestors rally against Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam outside of the governor's mansion in downtown Richmond on Feb. 4.

The Northam incident was merely the first in a deluge. More blackface in Virginia came down the pike thick and fast — Northam’s attorney general, Mark Herring, admitted a few days after Northam’s photo was republished that he too had once worn blackface, in 1980 (it had been to approximate the rappers he and his friends listened to, including Kurtis Blow). Tommy Norment, the state’s senate majority leader had been the managing editor of the Virginia Military Institute’s 1968 yearbook, in which there are multiple instances of racial slurs and blackface. Apparently not to be outdone, Florida joined in: Recently elected secretary of state Michael Ertel resigned after a 15-year-old photo of him wearing a T-shirt that read “Katrina victim” while sporting blackface more than a decade ago surfaced.

A model wears a creation as part of the Gucci women's fall/winter 2018–19 collection during Milan Fashion Week in Milan, Italy.
Antonio Calanni / AP

A model wears a creation as part of the Gucci women's fall/winter 2018–19 collection during Milan Fashion Week in Milan, Italy.

Away from the political sphere, fashion picked up the baton effortlessly: Gucci eventually pulled its egregious black sweater, the neck of which rolled up over the lower half of the face to reveal a cutout of bright red lips. It’s hardly a new phenomenon; fashion has long had a fascination with racist imagery, from Blackamoor to Mammy to Sambo.

The historical and current terror faced by black people in America is visible in policy across class and gender, and it’s usually only the most bombastic of these — mostly extrajudicial killings enacted against black women, men, and children — that make it into the national consciousness. More often than not, the effects and perpetuation of racism lie not in those shocking instances of bodily violence, but are steeped in behaviors that have been learned and relearned by both victims and perpetrators, over centuries. These examples of blackface worn in the past by elected officials elicit not necessary surprise but rather reinforce the unfailing constancy of American anti-black racism.

White people have never stopped learning about the many manifestations of anti-black racism, from chattel slavery to the 13th Amendment to segregation and what amounts to state-sanctioned murder and, yes, blackface. That’s especially true in this, the information age, where Wikipedia can give you the potted history of most things in a few clicks. But even before all of that, black people have been forced into (usually unpaid) teaching roles for these lectures. The methods by which racism is disseminated can be learned if one cares to look. But all of us know the shorthand, and blackface is up there as one of the shortest and most effective outlines, both easy and devastating.

The cover of an American minstrel show songbook, which depicts a performer dancing in costume and blackface makeup, published by Belmont Music Company, Chicago, Illinois, 1938.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The cover of an American minstrel show songbook, which depicts a performer dancing in costume and blackface makeup, published by Belmont Music Company, Chicago, Illinois, 1938.

Because, at this point, blackface is less about knowing the historical context of Sambo and watermelon smiles than it is about willfully inciting outrage and hurt. That tic — to injure black people, whether physically or in spirit — is rarely examined. But it is a learned and inherited habit, even if its true roots are lost in the mists of time to the perpetrators. When people put on shoe polish or whatever it is they are using to execute blackface, they don’t necessarily need to be thinking about minstrel shows to know their actions will cause harm. The casual knowledge of blackface’s power is what prompted a laughing student at the University of Oklahoma to paint her face black and use a slur in a short video in January this year. It’s what prompted University of Michigan student Lauren Fokken to upload a photo of herself in a black facemask to Snapchat and mockingly tag it #BlackLivesMatter last March.

The Northam photo was from a 1984 yearbook — literally a lifetime ago — and that is especially resonant for a Virginia Democrat like the governor is. Here is a man whose credentials place him farther along the progressive spectrum than many other politicians at his level: He has campaigned for, among other things, free community college, a $15 minimum wage, and expanded Medicare. Instead, the admission of applying shoe polish in an insulting approximation of blackness condemns him, even in a political atmosphere that has seen the rhetoric of white supremacy rise from the shadows once more. This specific sin, recorded in Northam’s own mind and copped to only when forced, is flagrant. The president quipped via tweet that Northam’s actions were “unforgivable!” While its origins might be blatantly partisan, it is also an absurdly correct take.

All of us know the shorthand, and blackface is up there as one of the shortest and most effective outlines, both easy and devastating.

In the time since these photos have come to light, sending elected officials and journalists scrambling for archived school records, there have been explainers published on the meaning, history, and consequences of blackface. A lot of bad faith arguments have been flying across the internet — whiny screeds imploring patient black people to “explain exactly why blackface is bad” — as people rush to draw lines between “appreciation and accuracy,” and cruel caricature and baked-in dehumanization. The latest from Northam’s camp is that rather than resign, the governor’s going on a statewide “listening tour” to engage with Virginians about race. He’s also reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alex Haley’s Roots. “Now that he knows better he is going to do better,” a Northam adviser said. The absurdity of just now teaching a 59-year-old Virginian about anti-blackness in America is laughable to the point of pain.

And that pain is a big part of blackface’s legacy, even when it appears to be in appreciation of a specific black figure, as Northam’s Jackson costume apparently was. No matter the benign intentions behind it, Northam’s blackface — at an age and in a state where he would’ve and should’ve known better — was wrong, and it is painful to his constituents and citizens at large. As the Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk says, “[Virginians] are looking for a governor, a leader who is going to stand up against people who are saying, this is the cradle of Confederacy and pushing a neo-Confederate agenda. How do you have the moral authority now to do those things, if you are revealed to be kind of the same cloth?”

What has made blackface last this long, barely flagging under the weight of its years, is that it is intimately — almost corporeally — known to both aggressors and targets for what it is. The yearbook photo is not a relic of 1984; it could — and does — happen in 2019. It hits the same spot whenever it happens because it was designed to. Blackface is a saber, and its aim is always true. ●

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