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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

How the "Northam" redefinition of blackface serves white supremacy

In two earlier posts, I have argued that there are a number of distinct categories of blackface according to use and intent. Most everyone is familiar with its derogatory use in minstrel shows and such. I wrote The hidden meaning of Northam's racist yearbook photo to bring attention to its more sinister history of use by Klansmen, and other white supremacists, to commit crimes upon white people while impersonating African Americans for the purpose of stoking racism. I believe that is one of the most under-reported aspects of this whole blackface teaching moment. I went more into that history in If Ralph Northam has to resign, why is Donald Trump still in office? where I recounted how thousands of immigrant stockward workers were burned out of their homes by white supremacists in blackface. This was 1919 in Chicago.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century actors in the role of Othello. (l-r) Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, Tommaso Salvini, Thomas Grist, Edmund Kean. Images from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection.
There has also been the use of theatrical makeup to darken one's skin to play another ethnicity that goes back to at least Shakespeare's Othello. This too could be considered blackface, if it is defined as the use of any makeup to darken one's skin. The American minstrel use of blackface, with which we are all familiar dates back to 1830, before slavery was ended. It developed as a particularly repugnant and racist use of "theatrical makeup" (usually burnt cork or shoe polish) because it had every intent to demean and destroy, and because it was a component part of a larger system of white supremacy. That is not to say that all use of theatrical makeup, or even shoe polish in poorer quarters, to darken the skin, is inherently racist. Were Shakespeare's early productions of Othello racist because English actors used "blackface" to better play the role of 'the Noble Moor'? I don't think so.

Clearly, the use of blackface by a white student standing next to another in a Klan robe as appeared in the infamous photo from Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook half-page is racist. My first post above raised the question: Was this picture a parody of the minstrel use of blackface, or of the less known terrorist use of blackface, as this would explain why the two were drinking beer together?

After Virginia Governor Northam retracted Friday's confession that he was one of characters in the photo without saying which, and instead said that he was now certain that he did not appear in that photo at all, most of the pundits and politicians that condemned him for being in the 35 year old photo refused to change their position. Neither did they do the necessary work to show that he was lying, and it was Northam in the photo based on independent collaboration. So far none has emerged, although at any point one or even both of the former students in the picture may reveal themselves, or be unmasked.

Instead, they all latched on to a story the governor told about how he used a little shoe polish, he didn't say what color, to darken his cheeks to win a Micheal Jackson dance contest in San Antonio in 1984. He never called it blackface, but they did, and they all said that was just as racist as if he was in the photo with the Klansman.

I said that they had jumped the shark, and were handing white supremacy a great victory by trying to redefine all "blackface," or the use of makeup to darken the skin, as racist. Simply defining the form as racist, regardless of the content or intentions.

Little did I know that over at Democracy Now, they were giving me my best brief example of this bankrupt position. That came when Amy Goodman guest Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, said:
And so, in him saying he does not see how this is offensive, even in dressing up as Michael Jackson and putting on a little bit of shoe polish, in blackface—blackface is blackface. And again, it should not be accepted, condoned at any time.
I understand that the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus is keen to have the first black governor, but they shouldn't be willing to hand the white supremacists such a victory to get it. "Blackface is blackface," equating a Michael Jackson impersonator with someone appearing blackface with a Klansman, serves only white supremacist purposes. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Ralph Northam in San Antonio, 1984
Taking him at his word, in 1984, while some student in a KKK outfit and another in blackface were creating the now infamous racist photo, he was off in San Antonio winning a dance contest as a Micheal Jackson lookalike. Of course, if it turns out it was him in that photo and he is still lying about it, that is a whole 'nother kettle of fish, but taking him at his word:

Ralph Northam came to San Antonio the same year the yearbook came out, 1984, to start his pediatric internship at Brooke Army Medical Center. He was in San Antonio until 1987, finishing two years of residency after his year as an intern. In May 1985 he was named "one of San Antonio’s most eligible bachelor doctors" by the San Antonio Express-News. This photo is from that article. He met his future wife, Pamela there as well. She was a pediatric occupational therapist at BAMC. They met on a blind date at a pool party.

And we now know that he also thought himself good at moonwalking, and darkened his skin with shoe polish as part of his makeup/costume to participate in a dance contest as Michael Jackson.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that since Micheal Jackson was much beloved in 1984, even in San Antonio, and since Northam won the dance contest, his representation honored Micheal Jackson. It was not a racist parody or denigration of the man.

And as it turns out, there is a long tradition, even a cottage industry, of Micheal Jackson impersonators. You can join them, provided your skin isn't too dark already. Otherwise, it will be a bit more challenging in the makeup department, Even today, you can find helpful HowTo videos on YouTube. Here are three. All involve using making up to darken the skin, what some would call blackface, I guess these sort of videos will have to be banned now as racist under the new "Northam" guidelines.

Michael Jackson Makeup Tutorial
#6 MakeUp: Michael Jackson!

Here is an interview with one of the top Michael Jackson impersonators. If you think Virginia Governor Ralph Northam should resign because he impersonated Micheal Jackson in a 1984 dance contest, you should watch this video, and leave a comment explaining why the guy in this video is a racist, and should stop what he is doing.

On that same Democracy Now show Monday, they had another guest, Rhae Lynn Barnes, assistant professor of American cultural history at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface, to talk about the history of blackface, but for all her expertise, she only talked about the more well known uses of blackface for minstrel shows and racist parody. She said nothing about the history of its use by white men to perpetrated crimes in the guise of African Americans for the purpose of criminalizing the black population, and terrorizing the whites. Of course, if you are trying to sell "blackface is blackface," it's best to leave that out of the equation.

That is unfortunate, because the used of blackface by white men to commit crimes isn't just history, it is a problem even today. Here is an example from just last year in the Las Vega Review-Journal:
Man accused of robbing Las Vegas Strip casino in blackface

12 March 2018
By Blake Apgar
A white man accused of robbing a Strip casino in blackface in January was charged Friday in federal court, records show.

Cameron James Kennedy, 26, was charged with robbery in the armed holdup of a casino cage at New York-New York, according to the U.S. Department of Justice and a federal criminal complaint filed last week. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

The Las Vegas man already was under federal supervision on prior bank robbery charges when he allegedly cut off his GPS monitoring bracelet and robbed the casino in the early morning of Jan. 10, according to the complaint.

Kennedy used makeup to appear black, Las Vegas police said. The cashier at the cage told police she did not think he was black because his skin tone was “off” and “blotchy,” according to the federal complaint.

White bank robber James Kennedy used blackface to disguise himself
If defining "blackface is blackface" means seeing no difference between the burnt-cork blacken faces of slave-era minstrel performers and Michael Jackson impersonators, while leaving out the long history of the use of blackface by white supremacists in non-performance environments to directly contribute to the criminalization of African Americans, then this project to demonize Ralph Northam will be handing the white supremacists a great victory in this redefinition of what is racist about blackface, along with a good man, as far as Democrats go, imho.

It must now also be added that such a shallow definition of blackface opens people up to fabricated attacks such as this one:

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