A 35-year-old photograph of Virginia Governor Ralph Northram has sparked a national discussion concerning blackface and its negative portrayal of African-Americans in the U.S.
According to The New York Times, the website Big League Politics published the photo from Northram’s 1984 medical school yearbook, which depicts the governor with black shoe polish applied to his face. In the photo, Northram is standing next to an unidentied person wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform.
“I think it’s disrespectful and something needs to be done about it,” Ferris integrated studies senior Thomas Murry said. “It just shows that racism hasn’t died down in America.
It’s not as aggressive as it used to be back in the day, but people are still trying to cover it up.”
An article by USA Today stated former vice president Joe Biden, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Planned Parenthood and Virginia state Democratic lawmakers have asked the governor to resign. However, Northram refuses to resign, stating, “I am not the person in that photo.”
“It’s exhausting because these are examples of, with the situation with the governor, there wasn’t someone in his corner or even himself who said, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this,’” Ferris Office of Multicultural Student Services Assistant Director Michael Wade said. “It’s exhausting that it continues to be a common thread that is problematic in our nation.”
Northram’s photograph is not the only publicized incident of blackface to occur in the U.S. this year. According to The Independent, Italian luxury brand Gucci released a sweater to their online store Feb. 6. The sweater featured a pull-up neck with a cut-out mouth surrounded by bright red lips. The company has since pulled the sweater from their online store and apologized via Twitter.
“It doesn’t affect me personally, but I do think it’s a bunch of nonsense,” Ferris business administration junior Rodney Williamson said. “I don’t think anything can be done about it, because people are still going to do it. Until people stop buying these things, I don’t think it’ll stop.”
The concept of blackface began with the creation of Jim Crow, a character created by stage actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice in the early 19th century, according to Ferris’ Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Rice appeared on stage in 1828 as Jim Crow, “an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character,” using burnt cork as makeup to make his skin appear dark.
The character of Jim Crow was made to portray negative stereotypes of African-Americans in the U.S. and helped to popularize the idea that African-Americans were “lazy, stupid, inherently less human and unworthy of integration,” as stated on the Jim Crow Museum’s website.
“There’s a history there of why it’s problematic,” Wade said. “From Disney cartoons to Bugs Bunny cartoons to advertisements during the time were used to make African-Americans look not human, look like monkeys, look like animals.”
The Jim Crow character became immensely popular and birthed the concept of the minstrel show. Minstrel shows were performed throughout the 19th and early 20th century; the Jim Crow Museum displays a 1942 program from Big Rapids High School’s final minstrel show. These shows solidified negative stereotypes against African-Americans in the minds of whites in the U.S.
“What I try to do here and the work we do here on campus is to promote diversity education, inclusion, social justice and understanding,” Wade said. “For many of our students, there is an inconsistency in the curriculum of understanding someone, what’s right and what’s wrong, when it comes to how you treat someone who’s different from you.”