Governor's controversy highlights painful history of blackface

Blackface traces roots to minstrel shows of mid-1800s

BLACKSBURG, Va. – The current controversy surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam has once again sparked conversations about the use of blackface and its painful history in America.

"It's always been objectionable," said Dr. Wornie Reed, director of Virginia Tech's Race and Social Policy Center and a professor of sociology and Africana studies. "It's never been OK. Never."

On Saturday, Northam said he was not in the picture printed on his medical school yearbook page that showed a person in blackface and a person in a Ku Klux Klan robe. He previously said he was in the picture. 

During Saturday's press conference, he admitted to darkening his skin once, years ago, in order to resemble Michael Jackson. Legislators and organizations continue to call for his resignation.

"I think the governor, as some people say, is kind of tone deaf," Reed said. "He's not listening to people who say he cannot survive. He cannot be governor."

Reed added, "What he did was unforgivable. That was 1984."

Reed said blackface traces its roots to the mid-1800s, when white actors would darken their skin for performances and perpetuate black stereotypes.

"They would do caricatures, do these distorted images of blacks," Reed said. "In addition to painting their face black, they would have distorted features and all of that, and sing and dance."  

Reed said that had a devastating effect on how black Americans were viewed and treated.

"The impression that some people had was this was kind of typical of them, these kind of images they saw in entertainment, so they were always intended to be disparaging of blacks," Reed said. "Blackface always has been, and still is, an expression of white supremacy."

Reed said it's important to have open conversations involving entire communities to overcome and stop these types of incidents.

"We have to address racism every time it occurs," Reed said.

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