Blackface and White Nationalism

Northam’s college yearbook page (1984).  Northam claims he’s not the pictured in the blackface/KKK photo, but that he did wear blackface on another occasion to emulate Michael Jackson

“It’s complicated” is one description of race relations in America.  The current controversy in Virginia involving Governor Ralph Northam is an example of this.  As a college student, Northam claims he donned blackface as an homage to Michael Jackson, even as Jackson, tragically, was beginning to alter his own physical appearance via painful surgical procedures, apparently to appear more “white.”

Why do white people don blackface?  When they do, is it always racist?  Take the case of Prince Harry, who as a young man wore a Nazi Swastika to a costume party.  Most people assumed he was simply trying to shock, and that he’d made a poor choice, not that he was a neo-Nazi bent on reviving the Third Reich.  In Northam’s yearbook page from 35 years ago, were the young men donning blackface and wearing KKK hoods simply (and dumbly) trying to shock?  Were they engaged in transgressive behavior to elicit groans as well as laughs?  Or were they white supremacists and racists, actualizing white privilege, privilege that is always present, even when not acknowledged, in American culture and society?

When you combine images of whites in blackface with other whites in KKK hoods, the message is clear.  Racial oppression, a murderous record, is being referenced, in a way that trivializes past horrors.  Governor Northam claims he didn’t appear in the blackface/KKK photo shown on his yearbook page, but he also apparently never complained about it nor did he express regret after the fact.

What are we to make of all this?  My friend M. Davout, who teaches political science in the American South, asks us to think about the wider historical context of blackface performers in the United States, including its role in the assimilation of immigrant groups into a racialized American identity. W.J. Astore

Blackface and White Nationalism

What a Virginia Governor’s Problem Reveals about American Identity

M. Davout

The controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook photo displaying a person in blackface alongside a person in a KKK hood and a college yearbook entry referring to him as “coonman” has been mostly reduced to the question whether decades-old racist expressions disqualify him from continuing to occupy his current office.  To the extent the issue remains framed in this narrow way, an opportunity is missed to understand the nature and durability of racist expression in U.S. society.  By uncritically accepting the conventional association of blackface with racist animus, we overlook how racist hostility is twinned with racial attraction in the very definition of what it means to be an American.

In his thought-provoking work, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, the late Berkeley political theorist Michael Rogin raised a central question: What accounts for the long and pervasive career of blackface in American entertainment?  Consider the minstrel shows of the Jacksonian era, the Tin Pan Alley songs and vaudeville skits of the late 19th century, followed by the silent film era that featured DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) through the introduction of synchronized sound in Hollywood movies starting with The Jazz Singer (1927).

Rogin’s key to answering that question is his recognition of the important role of outsider groups such as the Irish Catholics of the mid-19th century and immigrant Jews of the late-19th and early-20th centuries as purveyors and consumers of blackface entertainment.

Singling out the vaudeville performer Al Jolson’s role as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer as the immigrant son (“Jackie Rabinowitz”) who transcends his Jewish roots to become an American success story via blackface performance (his blacked-up rendition of “My Mammy!” to an audience, including his adoring mother, concludes the film), Rogin suggests how blackface entertainment performed the American dream of upward mobility by making immigrant ambition acceptable to nativists.

Al Jolson in blackface for “The Jazz Singer”

It was not unusual for past blackface entertainers to see their performances as manifesting a sympathetic bond with African-Americans—after all, Jewish immigrants from Russia knew what it meant to be treated as pariahs and were arguably as much a target of the newly resurgent 1920s KKK as were African-Americans.  In this regard, Northam’s admission, in one of his earliest public responses to the controversy, that he dressed up in blackface as Michael Jackson for a medical school dancing contest may have been an effort, however ineffective, to evoke cross-racial sympathy and distance himself from blackface images more transparently driven by racist aversion as was arguably the case in the medical school yearbook photo (which Northam now claims is not of himself).

Of course, both then and now, however much the performer sympathizes with the group he is masquerading as, the effect of blackface performance is to help win acceptance for the performer (and his group) at the cost of keeping African-Americans at the bottom, unassimilable.

Irish and Jewish blackface performers signaled the transformation of despised and racialized European immigrant groups into true (i.e., white) Americans. In arguing that Al Jolson’s character “washes himself white by painting himself black,” Rogin points to how “whiteness” was (and, to an extent, remains) a powerful component of what it means to be an American.

Maybe “white nationalism” is not a fringe idea, after all, but a central part of what it means to be American and explains a significant part of Donald Trump’s appeal to his white working-class base: he refuses to hide or repress or ignore the racialized origins of American identity.

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.

7 thoughts on “Blackface and White Nationalism

  1. I think the only reason that “whiteness” (what is that, anyway, what even IS that?) is associated with the American identity is because whites comprise something like 75% of the US population, while blacks are only 13% (last I checked).

    However, regarding Governor Northam, I think that this controversy is less about his possibly racist past and more about his cowardice. He should have stuck with one story – either own up to your mistakes, or deny having ever made them. He did both – in that order – before he came out with the Michael Jackson story. However, this blackface nonsense is not the only reason that Virginians (and others) are calling for his resignation. Between post-birth abortion (which is infanticide, and thus illegal) and introducing draconian gun control measures, he’s highly unpopular already.

    I’m not one to talk here, but I think part of the problem is that people read WAY too much into the stupid things that people do in their youth. Kids (and the occasional dumb young adult) wearing face-paint or swastikas do not indicate that they endorse what former wearers of their costume once stood for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These kinds of controversies are difficult to assess because there’s two things being conflated – dumb things teens do, and the long history of racism in the USA. It gets more difficult because America’s geographic regions have very different cultures and histories.

      In the South – and Virginia has traditionally been Southern, until the expansion of the DC suburbs started to shift the balance. And in the South, from what I read and from my own experiences living in the region for a year, you don’t grow up completely oblivious to what things like blackface mean. They have a different context in the South, where the racism permeates everything, from where people live to who gets to vote, and people know whose side they are on.

      So southern conservatives will see this as another case of people lacking a sense of humor, while black southerners know full well that a white child of privilege wearing black face knows full well what that means. It is a statement of power, just like when white supremacists in the US West (we get neo-nazis out here) wave swastikas around. They do it to intimidate Spanish-speaking Americans and Native Americans.

      And on whiteness – that’s an interesting issue, that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around. You are right to note that “white” is just as strange a category as “black” – neither is meaningful. BOTH were created by European imperialists to justify exploitation, colonization, and genocide. They invested their skin color with meaning, made claims to superiority that were only successful because they had organizational and technological advantages over their victims, and deployed them to seize lands, labor, and capital – the usual goal of any armed group.

      So whiteness is a bullshit category. Unfortunately, 500 years of colonial history have MADE it meaningful, and require those of us who are classified as white to use our privilege to destroy it, to accept that we are just one family of Tribes, on a planet full of many independent, equal Tribes with the same right to resources and life as us. We stop being white when white stops being a category used to oppress anyone considered “non-white.” – oppression being, always, ultimately, about control over resources.

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  2. I’m more a tech buff than movies, but do know Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” was the 1st ‘talkie’. Not easy for the cameraman, it took 16 reels to switch from ‘talkie’, to partially silent. Viewing clips from the movie, the ‘Blackface’ is a small part.
    Al Jolson was a famous entertainer of his time: singer, dancer, comedian, prankster, etc. Ironically, for our times, only Sammy Davis Jr. comes close. I wonder what he’d say of that jerk’s yearbook. In more humorous times, I’m sure he’d make a joke about the Corvette & the blackface!
    Watch out folks! It may be real dirty, but very funny! America loses more than wars and standard of living today; it’s lost it’s sense of humour.


  3. I graduated from college in 1985. There were no images in my college yearbook remotely like this. I can’t count the number of parties I went to at fraternities at which the liquor flowed freely; again, no blackface and no KKK hoods. Of course, I attended college in New England, not the South.

    The purposes to which blackface were put, in the context of vaudeville or early movies, are interesting. The way that “fringe” whites, immigrant groups like the Irish and Jews, donned blackface as a performance/mask that won for them a degree of acceptance by mainstream whites, is something I’d never thought of.

    But when you don blackface in 1984 and put a hooded KKK member beside you, you’re appealing to a different tradition, a tradition of violent, even murderous white supremacy. How could anyone have thought such an image was appropriate in a college yearbook?


    1. wjastore, I agree 100% with your comments. This picture was not taken in 1954. The excuses for Northam’s behavior are he was young, he was an adult. At some level his beliefs and behavior were validated by his surroundings and friends. He may not have been Jim Crow racist. The symbols the black face and KKK instead of being repulsive as representation of a brutal past were viewed as “funny” or harmless. I see a complete lack of empathy.

      To be clear though the “college” thought this picture was appropriate to print in 1984. Institutes of higher learning struggled with the free speech movement. The free speech was about the individual or groups right to free speech.

      The college or university would have in most cases the final say so on what would be printed in a yearbook. This college by printing this picture was sending a message.


  4. For years, I have felt that the failure of our school system to teach African-American history, our contributions to America, has left us to learn about African-Americans through the media and one-on-one contacts. People like Katherine Johnson who some learned about in the movie Hidden Figures or Don Shirley and the green book tourist guide who some learned about from the movie The Green Book have been left out of history. African Americans are often learned about from the skewed view of media that may even be unaware of their unconscious bias. The omission of black history, the failure of integration and the continuation of a white racist frame have all done an incredible disservice to our country. I, too, try to shed a light on this through my blog, and my book by the same name. I hope you will follow.


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