From Scandal to Opportunity: Virginia's Political Turmoil

by Helen Horan | 3/6/19 2:30am

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 throughout the British empire and broader world. 

“There were many active and organized movements in the 1950s and ’60s to push back against the derogatory practice, but that of course does not mean it went away, it just went elsewhere,” clarified Hoxworth. College campuses were the main environments where blackface persisted as means for whites to reclaim their space in response to integration. Modern forms of the vice have kept us from escaping the painful legacy. In 2013, Dartmouth faced backlash after Alpha Delta fraternity and Delta Delta Delta (now Chi Delta) sorority hosted a “Bloods and Crips” themed party that mocked black culture with dress and language. Even our beloved alumni Theodor Geisel ’25 is not immune from crticisim.   

According to NPR, Seuss wrote and performed in an entire minstrel show in college where the main character was in blackface. Children’s literature scholar Philip Nel has researched the racial origins of “The Cat in the Hat” and linked it to blackface. In essence, the form was ubiquitous. 

By the time of Northam’s offense, the practice had gone mostly underground. But the ever truth about blackface is its remarkable persistence; every so often it creeps back up and sends a shock through the system. Our discomfort with race is prodded, we are reminded of a past we want to forget, and the outcry begins again. Hoxworth calls blackface “capacious” and believes its simplicity, the act of dressing as “the other” in order to understand oneself, allows for its longevity.

Can Blackface be Washed Off? 

 Despite almost universal calls for Northam’s resignation from Democratic leaders across Virginia and the nation, as well as by the College Democrats, the Governor intends to remain in office and try to mend the racist scar. Currently he is planning a series of discussions around the state on race, a sort of “reconciliation tour.” Northam believes this moment “can be the first small step to open a discussion about these difficult issues,” and plans to devote the rest of his time in office towards improving race relations. Perhaps here is our silver lining ­— the opportunity for honest conversations and racial progress. 

Hoxworth, however, is weary of Northam’s “Reconciliation Tour” and this “washing-off the mask” plan because that has always been a trope of blackface. 

“If we are thinking about how blackface creates a white identity that only happens by washing off the blackface,” he said. The form rests on the idea that blackness can be put on and scrubbed off so that black people exist only insofar as to edify whites. Northam’s well-managed footsteps toward redemption are not a real confrontation of blackface, but rather a deliberate movement away from it. He is currently saying and doing the proper things to reintegrate into society. At the same time, there are some signs suggesting the insensitive incident was not a one-off, but a symptom of something else. 

Throughout his attempts to prove himself not racist, Northam has struggled to show he has a full grasp of black history. He referred to slaves as “indentured servants,” nearly responded to a request to moonwalk (in reference to his blackface for his Michael Jackson costume) and just last week, the Governor’s wife allegedly handed raw cotton to African-American students during a tour she gave of her mansion. Is this racism or just cluelessness? If we are willing to forgive someone for an act of ignorance — perhaps benign, perhaps malicious — it is important for Virginia citizens, myself included, to ask how far that ignorance goes.

Transcending Colorblindness

Many who personally know Northam can’t square that he could commit such a vile act. Some mention his childhood as proof of innocence. Northam’s parents kept him in the integrated public school system instead of sending their son to an all-white private school, as was common for people of their stature. A young Northam often hung out in black neighborhoods, and a significant number of his classmates were African-American. 

Yet isn’t the “I have black friends” defense dated? Clearly vicinity to black people does not shield white people from committing racist acts. The argument that Northam grew up in proximity to blacks is a shallow one neglecting the importance of thoughtful and complex conversations surrounding racism. Unwilling to recognize racial differences and his white privilege, instead Northam claimed he doesn’t see color: “I have a lot of African-American friends that I went to school with, played ball with, and I suspect I’ve had as much exposure to people of color as anybody.” 

Maybe instead of pretending that race doesn’t exist, it is important to see color and how it has disenfranchised some and empowered others. If Northam truly grasped what it meant to be black, I doubt he would have smeared shoe polish on his face. Race is a touchy topic, and people still do not know how to talk about it, but it is time we try. We need to have these conversations that will be unavoidably messy and uncomfortable, but raw and necessary. Hopefully we will see Northam, and other leaders, address concrete issues beyond the superficial offence of blackface ­— law enforcement reform, lack of school funding and continued housing discrimination. The silver lining can be the recognition of racial disadvantages and the implementation of policies toward dismantling them.

The Political Lessons

While we cannot erase the past, we do not have to stay imprisoned by it. Beyond the moral lessons, there are concrete political lessons from this disaster. Maguire noted that this situation demonstrates “the importance of thoroughly vetting candidates in primary elections in detail, even if that involves asking difficult questions or uncovering challenging issues.” 

In pursuit of atonement, Northam must first ask what systemic racist policies need to be changed in order to help black Virginians. This could materialize as the expansion of voter rights, improved health care or criminal justice reform. Politicians need to build trust by listening to marginalized groups they are supposed to serve. In the case of Northam, it may be stepping down that is in the best interest of his constituents. 

Forgiveness 

This situation ignites a discussion on the nature forgiveness to which Pastor Andy Sutton of Trinity Baptist Church in Lebanon spoke to me about. He believes the black community has an amazing opportunity at hand to offer forgiveness. 

“The extension of forgiveness is beautiful,” Sutton said. 

From a pastor’s perspective, to forgive one’s enemy is a way to imitate God. Northam’s sins calls on us to be merciful and give him a chance to repent. But real repentance part will take more than a crafted apology and careful words; it demands real action to repay those who have been historically wronged. 

Maguire is a former member of The Dartmouth Staff.

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