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It’s More Than Blackface And Northam

Publisher’s Statement
New Journal and Guide


The current flood of controversy will pass surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the racist-charged photo he first admitted to owning and then backtracked. That is certain. Just how soon and where he and we in Virginia go from here is uncertain.

The New Journal and Guide believes that Gov. Northam can make this state of affairs more than the resurrection of a three decades-old painful reminder of the racial divide in our state and nation. We are calling on him to lead the state in giving voice to our legacy of racism that continues to determine our actions today. It is a calling that can enhance his legacy, and he can be remembered as a great Virginia statesman.

However, that leadership begins as a Virginia citizen and not from the Governor’s mansion.

The Governor must resign as he grasps the fact that confidence in his ability to represent the state as its official public leader has been irrevocably lost. His outstanding political record and his friendly persona will not keep him in office. Fact is that the youthful mistakes and/or racial insensibilities acceptable in our culture of 1984 caught up with doctor, former state senator, Lt. Governor and now Governor Ralph Northam 35 years later.

Apparently it was a moment in time when wearing Blackface (and KKK attire) was acceptable in certain circles of our state and nation. How else could then white and privileged Ralph Northam, the son of a judge and nurse on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, be associated with even wearing a KKK costume and in Blackface in his medical school yearbook in 1984?

Northam pointed out that the racist Blackface image on his yearbook page was not the only one in that 1984 yearbook. And indeed he is correct. Several other pages carry the images of student-doctor graduates wearing Blackface.

Northam denies being in the medical school yearbook photo, but he does admit darkening his face that same year to complete a Michael Jackson costume he wore for a dance contest in San Antonio, Texas.

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Blackface in certain white communities clearly was acceptable behavior in 1984 and beyond.

In the 1984 Black community, the Rev. Jesse Jackson won the Virginia Presidential primary seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination.

The following year, L. Douglas Wilder would become Virginia’s first Black Lieutenant Governor on his way to becoming the state’s first Governor of color.

The anti-apartheid movement was well under way in South Africa, and in America, Black people were working in almost every professional field requiring a college degree.

Northam has sheepishly admitted to participating in the outlandishly accepted white culture of 1984 as reflected in the medical yearbook.

It seems that despite the advances Blacks had made in 1984, Northam and his fellow students were exercising their cultural understanding of what they had been taught about Black people.

But another question is how did such material even wind up in the yearbook? Every high school and college yearbook staff has a faculty advisor who helps edits and vets the material which goes in them.

The purpose of such oversight is not only to ensure the professional editing of the publication; but also, that the product accurately reflects the values and standards of the institution.

So apart from the 25-year-old Northam and his peers, we must also question the heart, intent, and values of the faculty, staff and administration of the Eastern Virginia Medical School of Norfolk in 1984 where all of this took place, and we must evaluate the school’s response in 2019. EVMS had a hand in this, too.

The best thing Gov. Northam can do for Virginia is to resign and turn the reigns over to Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. Then, he should ask Gov. Fairfax to appoint him to lead a statewide commission on race that will open up the dialogue and discussion in cities around the Commonwealth, especially in colleges preparing new generations of leaders and professionals.

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This is the perfect year for such an action, as Virginia is commemorating the 400th anniversary in 2019 of the 1619 arrival of the first Africans to the shores of what is today Hampton, Va.’s Fort Monroe (and not Jamestown as is still being taught to school children). It was the beginning of the emerging nation’s horrible legacy of Black enslavement.

The entire nation will benefit from such a commission if it does its job well and with the goal to encourage true change in 400 years of racial and cultural insensibilities.

Perhaps the commission can achieve what we have failed to do so many times before.

How many incidents of past racist behavior by individuals or agencies have been revealed and caused us to pause. Each time there is controversy, debate, regret and recrimination.

But after the pause we move on, but fail to resolve the painful and chronic racial disease which has plagued us since the genesis of the nation.

This situation can help us move further away from our racist history that continues to determine our individual and collective actions whether at a private party dressed in Blackface or in public corporate offices making decisions and policies that help define Black livelihood in 21st century America.

Chief Reporter Leonard E. Colvin contributed to this story.

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