February 13, 2019 5:20 am

The “Virginia Serenaders,” a minstrel show. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Virginia’s political scandals reflect a troubled history and intersect racism,
gender and sexual violence — issues some of us navigate daily.

Journalist and professor Melissa Harris-Perry tweeted Friday night that “observers are wringing hands over the ‘racist v rapist’ dilemma facing [Virginia],” a reference to the troubling trifecta of scandals embroiling Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring. 

The transgressions of Northam and Herring, both white, are racist in nature. Each admitted to wearing blackface as adult men not much more than three decades ago.

Further, on Monday Northam referred to the first enslaved Africans brought to Virginia 400 years ago as “indentured servants” in a disappointing CBS  interview.

Fairfax, currently the only black person elected to statewide office, is adamantly denying sexual assault allegations leveled against him by two women.

Virginians now find ourselves at a crossroads, a point where we must decide if we will weigh racist behavior as strongly as alleged sexual violence in determining how we hold our leaders — and ourselves — accountable. For Virginians like me – those of us who are black, female and disgusted by both racism and rape  — this is an uncomfortable position to be in but not at all an unfamiliar one.

“Welcome,” Harris-Perry, a biracial black woman, ended her tweet, “to the intersection where black women live.”

No surprise

At the crux of the slow-motion implosion of Virginia’s political leadership are the admissions by Northam and Herring that they both donned blackface in the 1980s to portray African American musical artists.

If there is, somehow, still confusion about what blackface is and why it is abhorrent, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.,  explains that blackface was an essential element of minstrel shows, an American stage entertainment tradition dating to the 1830s.

“White performers with blackened faces … and tattered clothing … imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations.”

Blackface performances “characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice,” the museum says. 

Blackface is repugnant, a disfigurement of black peoples’ image and a disrespect to our identity. There is nothing excusable or minor about the blatant racism blackface represents.

My ire is not limited to Northam and Herring, elected officials I voted for, participating in the racist tradition of blackface. I am no longer surprised when white people in Virginia wear blackface. White people, after all, created blackface and, as the dominant social class throughout America’s history, they molded it into one of the nation’s most treasured pastimes.

American presidents applauded blackface.

The nation’s discriminatory, often-violent, 80-year-long, segregation system was named for an early blackface caricature, Jim Crow. 

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Warner Bros., now a multibillion-dollar company and one of “Hollywood’s most profitable studios,” created kids cartoons full of bumbling blackface characters always falling for Bugs Bunny’s tricks. 

Blackface is an almost two-century-old tradition that continues today not through minstrel shows, but through Halloween costumes. A third of Americans think this is acceptable, according to the Pew Research Center.

Northam continued the ugly tradition with an imitation of pop icon Michael Jackson to win a dance contest (was it Northam’s costume — replete with a glove and “a little bit of shoe polish” daubed on his cheeks — that clenched the contest for him, or was it his moonwalking?).

The same goes for Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted wearing a “wig and brown makeup” to college parties to imitate hip hop pioneer Kurtis Blow. That these white men in particular are elected political leaders only serves to make their lack of self-awareness, insight and cultural competency all the more alarming.

A mess of his own making

Northam has lost my trust and respect; not only because he made a mistake 35 years ago by wearing blackface. Many people in historic and contemporary Virginia have worn blackface, and all people have made mistakes.

My main problem is the way Northam has responded to this mess of his own making.

During a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam denied appearing in a KKK yearbook photo but admitted to moonwalking in blackface. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Herring’s handling of his blackface blunder was the opposite of Northam’s ham-handed approach. Herring not only took responsibility for his actions, he seemed to remove his desires from the equation instead of clawing to keep his position.

“In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general,” Herring wrote in a statement apologizing for his conduct.

He sounds like a man who wants to move forward by acting in the best interest of the people he serves. He sounds ready to listen and learn.

There are two men wearing heinous “costumes” on Northam’s yearbook page, one in blackface and one in a KKK robe.

The page from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook that has ignited widespread calls for his resignation.

Northam initially issued an apology for appearing in the photo — an apology that seemed as sincere as his most recent apology on CBS. But then, he recanted.

It’s not him in the photo on his yearbook page and he has no clue how it got there, he says.

Even if I believed that, which I don’t, the governor’s staunch refusal to resign means he is willing to keep dragging Virginia through the mud with him.

Stop talking, start listening

Northam has resisted calls from every corner of the country to step down, instead branding himself Monday as a “healer” who is somehow the best equipped to lead the state in becoming a more equitable place for all of us. To prove this, Northam said, among other things, that he had started reading “Roots.”

Despite the plethora of historic resources available to all of us in Virginia’s public libraries, despite the many historians a call or email away at our many universities, despite even Google, our governor cited “Roots” as a newfound aid to his understanding of slavery, racism and how they connects directly to blackface.

That is inconceivable to me. I can’t take that seriously. I am an inheritor of the legacy of slavery and racism. The daily discrimination my forebears endured deserves Northam’s deeper study.

Those 20-odd enslaved Angolans brought here in an English pirate ship in 1619 deserve more than his mischaracterizations. If Northam minimizes slavery, how in the world can I not expect him to minimize the legacy of slavery, present at this very moment in the state he leads and in the lives of black Virginians? 

I want our governor to stop talking, start listening, and, in the words of comedian Martin Lawrence, get to stepping.

The Library of Virginia is about four blocks west of the Executive Mansion where Northam resides, a little ways down East Broad Street. He should walk down to the library and lose himself for an hour or two among the narratives of black people enslaved in Virginia from its start until the Civil War.

Even if he doesn’t hit the stacks, Northam must make a much more serious effort than he’s shown to add proper, credible historical context to his study of Virginia’s deeply racist history.

And I still believe he should resign.

Northam’s actions concerning at least two issues with direct implications for black Virginians and our history do not inspire confidence in his ability to govern us.

I am one of hundreds of people who asked the governor to explain his silence and sidestepping in regards to a Buckingham County compressor station Dominion Energy plans to build in the historic African-American community of Union Hill as part of its Atlantic Coast Pipeline. When Northam took action on Union Hill, he did it by suddenly axing two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board as the board weighed granting a permit for the project, currently considered one of the foremost environmental justice issues in Virginia.

The governor’s actions spoke loud and clear to me: “I am not concerned about historic black communities.”

On the campaign trail, Northam called for the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces in Virginia.

“I believe these statues should be taken down and moved into museums. As governor, I am going to be a vocal advocate for that approach and work with localities on this issue,” Northam said in August 2017 after the deadly Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

That stance was one reason he got my vote, as I fully feel these monuments — likenesses of men who fought for the traitorous Confederate army in a war caused by slavery — should never occupy public places.

But after he was sworn in, Northam went mute on the monuments, and gave a puzzling response when asked about them after his blackface scandal began.

“If there are statues, if there are monuments out there that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry,” he told the Washington Post, “they need to be in museums.”

“If?” How Northam fixed his mouth to even say this, a statement which seems to call into question the existence of the very real, very racist Confederate monuments that he himself said should be moved to museums less than two years ago is beyond me.

He’s either being insincere, or he doesn’t understand the gravity of what the monuments represent.

Or both.

Either scenario exemplifies his inability to lead black Virginians or head up a statewide examination of racial history.

Fairfax should resign also

While Northam and Herring’s admitted transgressions are moral; the allegations against Fairfax are criminal.

There is a bitter irony within this dynamic that is not lost on me. In the end, the two white men may very well retain their authority, while the lone black man stands to lose his.

Black people in this country and state have already lost so much. But Fairfax should indeed lose his position, should even a shred of what Vanessa Tyson, who claims Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex, and Meredith Watson, who alleges that Fairfax raped her in college, say he did to them is proven. I am the daughter of a black man, my husband is a black man, and I am raising two rambunctious little boys who will one day become black men.

I love black men, but I am unwilling to excuse or defend the horrifying things Fairfax is accused of doing simply because he is a black man. I am unwilling to excuse or defend sexual violence by any man. 

Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax talks to reporters in the Capitol last week after sexual assault allegations were made against him. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

One in six American women “has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime,” reports RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network).

Enslaved women had no agency over their bodies, and were frequent victims of rape; today, 21.2 percent of black American women will be raped in their lifetime, a 2017 report by the The Institute for Women’s Policy Research states.

Fairfax deserves due process, like any American. And I hope he is innocent, as he continues to say he is.

In my heart, however, I believe these women. It would be in all of our best interests, but especially Tyson’s and Watson’s, if Fairfax would resign and participate in a thorough investigation.

The ghosts of old Virginia

In all of this turmoil, I wish that racism and racist actions — especially when enacted by elected officials — were met with the same level of intolerance we exercise against sexual violence. Racism, as our history has proven and as my people have experienced, is also a form of violence. 

From 1940 to 1997, Virginia’s official state song was bCarry Me Back to Old
Virginia,” a syrupy ballad written in 1878 by a New York-born, pioneering
Black composer named James A. Bland. White minstrel show star and soft
shoe dancer George Primrose introduced Bland’s song to the world.

Primrose performed Bland’s ode to the commonwealth in blackface, embodying a
formerly enslaved “old darkey” pining for the past. The composition, whose
lyrics horrify no matter how sweetly sung, remains Virginia’s state song

“There’s where I labored so hard for old massa,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn,
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginia, the state where I was born.”

The ghosts of “Old Virginia” have come calling; how will a new Virginia answer?

Views of guest columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Virginia Mercury.

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

A freelance journalist with experience in broadcast, digital and print media, Samantha Willis’ award-winning writing has appeared in Richmond magazine, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Style Weekly and Glamour Magazine, among other publications. She is a Hanover County native who lives in Ashland with her husband and sons. Contact her at [email protected]