Saturday, February 02, 2019


I agree with the many Democrats (and opportunistic hypocrite Republicans) who've called for Ralph Northam's resignation.
A photo from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook shows him and another person in racist costumes — one wearing blackface and one a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, though it was not clear which person was the future governor.

Hours after the 35-year-old photo came to light Friday, Northam apologized for his decision to appear in it. Elected officials and activist groups from across the political spectrum called for him to resign.

But in a video posted to Twitter Friday evening, Northam said he had spent the past year “fighting for a Virginia that works better for all people” and he would continue to do so throughout the rest of his term, which ends in January 2022.
I'm ready for his solidly progressive lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, to take over and become Virginia's second black governor. I understand why Northam thinks he can survive -- in early December, his approval/disapproval numbers in a statewide poll were 59%/24%. He thinks he has political capital. But if Democrats want to say to Americans that racism is intolerable, he can't stay.

The yearbook photo was published in 1984, a generation after the Civil Rights Era -- but the 1980s was a time of backlash and retrenchment. Ronald Reagan was president -- and in 1981 there was blackface at one of his pre-inaugural events, although it was blackface worn by a black performer who was trying (unsuccessfully) to send the president and the country a message:
On January 19, 1981, a number of prominent entertainers gathered at the Capital Centre, just outside of Washington, D.C., for the All Star Inaugural Gala, saluting the country’s new President, Ronald Reagan. Among them was the Tony Award-winning actor Ben Vereen, who, a few years before, had been nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the enormously popular miniseries “Roots.” For his contribution to the gala, Vereen staged an homage to the legendary black vaudevillian Bert Williams, one of the most popular entertainers of the early twentieth century. The tribute, which he performed with Ronald and Nancy Reagan seated regally near the stage, consisted of two parts. First, Vereen sang the popular show tune “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.” He did so dressed as Williams, wearing coat and tails, and, as Williams would have—as was required of African-American theatrical performers of Williams’s era—wearing blackface, too.

The tribute begins buoyantly. After the first song, looking delighted by the rapturous applause of his audience, Vereen, still performing as Williams, mimics an interaction with an imaginary bartender and offers to buy the largely Republican crowd a celebratory drink. Then he gently makes it clear that this gesture has been denied owing to the color of his skin. Appearing deflated, Vereen then sings Williams’s signature song, the mordant and dirgelike “Nobody” (“I ain’t never got nothin’ from nobody, no time”), while staring into a makeup mirror and wiping the black paint from his face.

This final five minutes of Vereen’s performance is anguished yet defiant, evoking the pain and exploitative power of blackface minstrelsy and the distortions of stereotype. It was intended to implicate the predominantly white audience. And almost nobody saw it. The gala was televised on ABC, on tape delay, but the broadcast omitted this latter half of Vereen’s act. Vereen had been promised that the whole performance would be shown, and he felt betrayed by the network’s decision to edit out the latter part.
This is what America saw. Notice the delight on Reagan's face:

Reagan's reaction is at 2:43 of the clip. He isn't enjoying the critique of racism in Vereen's act. He's enjoying the minstrel show.

We should have been beyond blackface by the 1980s, but in 1986 America made this a hit movie:

Mark Watson (Howell), is the pampered son of a rich family who is about to attend Harvard Law School along with his best friend Gordon (Gross). Unfortunately, his father's neurotic psychiatrist talks his patient into having more fun for himself instead of spending money on his son. Faced with the prospect of having to pay for law school by himself, Mark decides to apply for a scholarship, but the only suitable one is for African-Americans only. He decides to cheat by using tanning pills in a larger dose than prescribed to appear as an African-American.
Northam blacked up, but he wasn't alone in Reagan's America. Progress comes slowly.

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