Blackface and the American Idea of Race

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The price of scandal

Periodically the American punditocracy convenes on cable TV for a “conversation about race.” But, whether sparked by a celebrity chef’s use of a racial slur, or a Black president’s comment about the shooting of a Black teen, or a white president’s remarks about “fine people on both sides” of a racist march, the conversations about race seem to fade out of the national consciousness as quickly as spring showers, with the phrase “both sides” lingering after them like a bit of precipitation on a pundit’s lip.

Still, dead conversations about race return, first as tragi-comedy, then as farce.

The latest case in point is the national blackface conversation that erupted in February, after Virginia Democratic governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page (complete with a photograph of someone in blackface next to someone in Klan garb), was publicized.

There followed the triple tragi-comedy of Northam’s refusal to resign, of Justin Fairfax, his Democratic lieutenant governor, in turn refusing to step down after two women separately accused him of sexual assault, and, finally, of Mark Herring, the Democratic attorney general and the next in line for the governorship, preemptively announcing that he himself had worn blackface in his youth. All of this and even some of the conversation it sparked would fit in a remake of the old Ingrid Bergman movie where someone asks, apropos of an old crime, “Who…

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