The troubling history behind Ralph Northam’s blackface Klan photoRoundup
tags: racism, political history, Ku Klux Klan, Blackface, Ralph Northam
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book "Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface."
A viral photo of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) overshadowed the first day of Black History Month. As an expert in the history of amateur blackface minstrelsy, I was not surprised to see that a young Northam had a blackface Klansman photograph included in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.
I spent a decade poring over blackface composites from yearbooks and fraternal orders, watching cracked film footage and cataloguing more than 10,000 blackface plays at Harvard University. Those plays and Northam’s racist photo show us the centrality of amateur blackface minstrelsy to American cultural life and universities. They show how upwardly mobile white men concentrated white-supremacist political power in the century after the Civil War, using the profits of amateur blackface to build white-only institutions and using blackface performances to articulate to voters their legislative commitment to white supremacy.
They also show how persistent those power structures remain.
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