And you probably never thought you’d have to tell the folks of the state that you’d eventually govern that you did this. But there on Saturday was Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, telling the people of Virginia (and everybody else) about the time he really did compete in a dance contest dressed, with his face blacked, in what he described as a Michael Jackson costume.
And the reason Mr. Northam had to disclose this to anybody — in a news conference, on a weekend — was because a different photo had come to light, from his personal page of the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School. It’s of two people. One’s in a parody of country-club casual (plaid pants, blazer, shades, fedora, bow tie, beer can, megawatt grin). The other’s dressed for a Ku Klux Klan meeting — mask, robe, pointy hat and everything. And: The country club guy has these unnatural, uncanny tar-black face and hands.
Even though he says it was he who allowed the picture to adorn his yearbook page, Mr. Northam swears neither of the people in it is him. But he does totally get how we’d conclude something else. And that’s why he’s telling this Michael Jackson story — at a news conference on a Saturday.
According to him, back when such a photo would have been taken, he would have known what a problem blackface is because of the time he tried to be Michael Jackson. It wasn’t that he knew because someone more historically aware and actually black filled him in on the long, objectionable tradition of American blackface minstrelsy — an art form in which, initially, white people dressed as black ones as entertainment, on one hand, and as proslavery propaganda on the other (actually, both hands tended to be clasped for that).
It wasn’t that anybody had told young Ralph Northam about the glorious Virginia Minstrels, the four men whose blackface act caused a foundational sensation in the 1840s; or how the Virginia Minstrels were but one of an endless parade of acts that delighted white audiences — with songs, dances, skits and more — on both sides of the Atlantic for most of a century. The governor wasn’t arguing that his young self came to see that blackface was wrong because he had learned how minstrelsy wasn’t some cultural niche but was once America’s popular culture and how that popularity helped cement the nation’s perception of black people as hideous and stupid and freakish and dumb and lusty and unworthy of more than torture, exploitation, derision, oppression, neglect and extermination.