Blackface in the News

Exploring the Historical Roots of a Living Stereotype

Last Updated: February 12, 2019

On February 1, 2019 media sources reported the discovery of racist images on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page. The 1984 yearbook photo shows two people at a party, one dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and the other in blackface. Northam quickly apologized for appearing in the photo but later changed his story and denied that he was one of those pictured. He admitted, however, to wearing blackface on a different occasion that same year, to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest. Northam, a Democrat, has so far rejected the mounting calls for his resignation by state and national party leaders, representatives of the African American community, and other constituents.

The ongoing controversy is just one of a series of recent incidents in which public officials have admitted to wearing blackface. Last month, Florida’s secretary of state resigned after photos from a 2005 Halloween party showed him in blackface, dressed as a Hurricane Katrina victim. On February 6, Virginia’s attorney general—third in line to replace Governor Northam should he leave office—also admitted to wearing blackface at a college party in 1980. Incidents of college students wearing blackface appear to be widespread: in late February, USA Today reporters uncovered images of blackface and other racist stereotypes in hundreds of yearbooks from the 1970s and 1980s. Allusions to blackface in clothing have also prompted an outcry against the fashion brand Gucci, which pulled an offensive turtleneck sweater from store shelves and publicly apologized.

Some observers have commented on the irony that the Northam story broke on the first day of Black History Month, when Americans are encouraged to celebrate the important ways that African Americans have shaped US history. The series of incidents involving blackface are also a reminder that we need to educate young people about America’s history of racism and examine the ways that images and popular culture have served to propagate racist ideas. This history is essential to helping young people understand what the younger Governor Northam and others did not: what may seem to be a lighthearted “costume” is in fact a painful and offensive evocation of white supremacy.

Use the following teaching ideas to introduce the story of Governor Northam and then examine the roots of blackface in the years before the Civil War. Short excerpts from recent news and opinion pieces can also help your students explore various perspectives on the significance of the story and consider ideas about how leaders and citizens should respond today.

  1. Introduce the Story

    Watch this video clip from PBS NewsHour (0:00-2:45) which offers a brief overview of the basic story surrounding Governor Northam. After 2:45, the video discusses other aspects of the Virginia story which are not addressed in this Teaching Idea. Because this story is continuing to develop and is expanding to include other figures, you may want to refer to more recent news sources when you introduce the basic facts to your students.

    As students watch the video, give them the opportunity to write down reactions and questions in their journals. The following questions can be used to guide a short discussion of the story:

    • What was pictured on Governor Northam’s medical school yearbook page?
    • What has Governor Northam said about wearing blackface?
    • How have his constituents in Virginia and others responded to these reports?
  2. Examine the History of Blackface

    Blackface first appeared in American theatrical performances during the mid-1800s. Minstrel shows with white performers in blackface became widespread in popular culture, a form of entertainment that also functioned to dehumanize African Americans and sought to legitimize slavery and oppression. The short VICE News video The Long, Painful Legacy Of Blackface In America (2:37) features Dwandalyn Reece of the National Museum of African American History. Reece introduces this history, which is essential to helping students understand the furor surrounding elected officials who have admitted to wearing blackface in recent days.

    Before viewing the video, you may want to warn students that the visual stereotypes portrayed in the film are offensive and may feel difficult to watch.

    Ask students to consider three questions as they watch the excerpt, and discuss them afterwards:

    • What were minstrel shows?
    • How did minstrelsy define what it meant to be black? To be white?
    • What effects might the stereotypes in minstrel show performances have had on white Americans who watched them in the past? What does Dwandalyn Reece say about how they affect her as a viewer today?

    You can also discuss this question together as a class: How does the film help you understand the response to people like Governor Northam wearing blackface in the more-recent past?

  3. Explore Perspectives on What Should Happen Next

    The story that began with Governor Northam’s yearbook photo has reverberated deeply and taken on wider social significance as Americans ask, what now? What should a meaningful response to the revelations of racist actions by political leaders look like? Amid widespread calls for resignations, others question the fairness of judging mistakes made more than 30 years ago. Other commentators take a wider view, emphasizing not just personal racist actions in the past, but the legacies and structures of racism in the present.

    First, ask students to consider their own point of view about the significance of this story:

    • Why does it matter that Governor Northam and other elected leaders chose to wear blackface as young men?
    • What could be an appropriate response—for those leaders; for people in the groups denigrated by their behavior; for their constituents and members of their community; and for all Americans?

    Next, examine four different perspectives on the importance of the Northam story and what should happen next. Post some or all of the four quotations from the handout Quotations on the Governor Northam Controversy around the room.

    In a modified Gallery Walk activity, ask students to move around the room and read the quotations. Then prompt students to stand next to:

    • The perspective they find most compelling
    • The perspective they find most challenging
    • The perspective they would like to know more about

    In the small groups that form near the quotations after each prompt, students can discuss their reactions to the selected quotation and share how it extends or challenges their thinking.

  4. Use Exit Cards to Invite Final Reflection

    The issues raised in this teaching idea are far-reaching and troubling; this is a lesson that will likely leave students with more questions than answers. Help students synthesize their current thinking and gain perspective on how you might extend this conversation by closing the lesson with an exit card.

    On their exit cards, ask each student to write:

    • One insight or takeaway from today’s discussion
    • One question or idea for a follow-up conversation they would like to have as a class
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