‘It is a teachable moment:’ A discussion about the history of blackface imagery

Updated: Feb. 4, 2019 at 11:04 PM EST
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - As the conversation surrounding the image of someone in blackface on Governor Ralph Northam’s medical college yearbook continues, it is important to discuss the history behind blackface, and why the images are so damaging for communities.

“The history of blackface started in the 19th century, where actors used blackface to darken their skin,” Rodney Lofton explained. “The women were hyper-sexual, the men were considered savages - it evolved into creating caricatures of people of color, specifically African-Americans. The exaggerated lips, and exaggerated looks of people of color - it was used to fuel racism in our community.”

Lofton, the vice president of Diversity Richmond, says shying away from discussing blackface doesn’t help communities learn anything, unfortunately it is a part of American history dating back centuries, when actors would darken their faces and exaggerating the features, language and character of black people.

In the 1800s, the first popularly known blackface character was Jim Crow, portrayed in minstrel shows. A white actor used burnt cork or shoe polish on their skin. Blackface, in many ways, was used to mock black people through forms of entertainment. Decades later, we continue to see the headlines, controversial costumes and statements surrounding blackface.

At Diversity Thrift, Lofton says they have been given some blackface items, and have chosen to not put them in the thrift store for resale, but instead give them to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center on Leigh Street.

“They bring back moments that we reflect on as it relates to slavery and the division. [Blackface] was meant to ridicule, to keep at bay, making people feel as though they are second class citizens,” he said. “It is a teachable moment - if we keep these items on the floor, we would be hurting our African-American constituents who come in, the young men and women who come in here daily.”

The Commonwealth was recently shaken by an image of a man in blackface and someone in a KKK hood on Governor Ralph Northam’s medical college yearbook page, and Lofton says it is a time to have open and honest dialogues about issues surrounding race.

“It’s heartbreaking, but I am holding on to the hope that this is a conversation we will begin to have,” he said.

Lofton says the history cannot be ignored, instead it should be learned from and talked about, so it is not repeated.

“The images that you see are not people we know. We are so much more than the caricatures. We are so much more than the images you have drawn of us. We are doctors, lawyers, teachers, mothers and fathers," said Lofton.

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