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Jim Crow in the Game

History in blackface slaps the present moment awake.

What? The governor put that picture on his yearbook page? In 1984? The wave of outrage, the demand for his resignation — from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s own party, the Democrats — can’t be dismissed with a shrug and an apology. His career may be over, thanks not simply to an act of youthful stupidity but to the context that made it possible: good old American racism.

The controversial picture shows two guys standing next to each other, holding cans of (most likely) beer. One is dressed up in a Klan hat and robe; the other is smeared in blackface. For reasons that now seem incomprehensible, it was posted on Northam’s own page in the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. He has publicly denied that he himself is in the picture, but . . . too bad. That’s not enough to make the scandal disappear. The picture’s impact is visceral.

Should Northam resign because of it? This is a question that instantly pulls me in two directions: yes and no. For now I’ll let it hover as “maybe” and move on to the real story here, which isn’t the governor’s youthful indiscretion or personal morality, but America’s dark, still-buried history: not simply of racism and violence, but the of the apple-pie normalcy of it.

Suddenly it is the normalcy of it that is being clawed into accountability and purged. Consider how much things have changed. Remember Robert Byrd? He was the longest-serving senator in U.S. history and a liberal Democrat. He was also a member, in his younger days, of the Ku Klux Klan — an officer, for God’s sake. He was a Kleagle and an Exalted Cyclops.

Remember Hugo Black? He was also a liberal Dem, serving for 10 years in the Senate and 34 years on the U.S. Supreme Court. He also joined the Klan in his younger days and never exactly apologized for doing so. “I would have joined any group if it helped get me votes,” he once said, by way of explanation.

All that was back in the days before racism had come undone as a core feature, if not a basic requirement, of being white in America. The fact that this has changed is worth acknowledging. Most Democrats, including most of the declared 2020 presidential candidates, have called on Northam to resign. I’m sure this is as much pragmatic awareness as moral outrage. The Dem base has no tolerance left for idiots in blackface, much less for pseudo-Klansmen. Unavoidably, a line of connection runs straight from the yearbook photo to the worst of American history: lynching, slavery, genocide.

The history of blackface makes this clear. A singing-and-dancing white man with his face blackened by burnt cork was at the center of what was once the country’s most popular form of entertainment: the minstrel show. It’s where Jim Crow began:

Weel about and turn about and do jis so,

Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

“Jim Crow grew to be minstrelsy’s most famous character,” Blair L. M. Kelley wrote at TheGrio. “. . .The gag in Jim Crow performances was that Crow would show up and disturb white passengers in otherwise peaceful first class rail cars, hotels, restaurants, and steamships. Jim Crow performances served as an object lesson about the dangers of free black people, so much so that the segregated spaces first created in Northern states in the 1850s were popularly called Jim Crow cars. Jim Crow became synonymous with white desires to keep black people out of white, middle-class spaces.”

The history of blackface entertainment grows ever more chilling, populated with such characters as Jim Crow and Zip Coon and Mammy the faithful slave, with her illiterate, disposable pickaninny children.

“Minstrelsy,” Kelley wrote, “desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of Southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree? Even the violence of enslavement just became part of the joke.”

What begins to emerge with increasing clarity is how little this country has atoned for its past. No, a shrug and an apology aren’t quite enough.

Suddenly the governor of Virginia is assigned the role of scapegoat. This also concerns me. His resignation may have pragmatic necessity, but the blame for the horrors summoned by his yearbook photo require a collective acceptance of responsibility.

As Rhae Lynn Barnes wrote recently in the Washington Post: “In Jim Crow’s century-long reign, a strange, visible and highly pervasive world of blackface minstrel shows took hold in nearly every city and town in the United States. Amateur blackface minstrel shows and parades were so central to civic and campus life in 20th-century America that it’s hard to find a university yearbook without a blackface image or a town that didn’t hold such a parade.

“. . . Northam’s blackface yearbook spread is a small shard of an expansive and ever-present national story, one that shows how racism defined what it means to be a patriotic, successful and civically oriented white man in modern America.”

The undoing of American racism has been a long, fierce, painful process, and we’re hardly beyond it. From our prison complex to police shootings to voter purges aimed at people of color to Muslim bans, border cages and the brutal thuggery of ICE, racism still rules. Standing in moral judgment of the past won’t, in and of itself, heal the harm we’re inflicting on the future.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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