You know this scandal by now: the one with the powerful man, and the unearthed yearbook page, and the wave of outrage that follows. This time, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is cornered.
On Friday afternoon, Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page surfaced online, and showed—right there below his name—a photo of two people: one man in blackface, standing next to a person in the standard uniform of the Ku Klux Klan, complete with a pointy white hood. The people are holding beers. They appear to be at a costume party.
Northam, a Democrat, has been called on to resign by members of both parties and several 2020 presidential candidates. Over the past 24 hours, the governor’s explanations for the photo and his own history of wearing blackface have shifted significantly. He first apologized, then said he wasn’t one of the men in the photo, then added that he once wore shoe polish to dress up as Michael Jackson, and so far is refusing to step down. After first declining to identify which man in the photo was him, he now feels sure that neither is, and that the photo appeared on his page only because of an error in yearbook production.
There’s more. In a press conference, after telling reporters about his Michael Jackson costume, Northam nearly moonwalked right there on the stage, as though to emphasize that it had all been intended in jest. His wife managed to stop him.
Whether Northam is in that photo is unclear, but it’s very difficult to believe he can’t remember who is. And in his bizarre denial, he calls to mind the most cartoonish national stereotypes of the South: Not only does Northam seem to want you to believe that Klan hoods and blackface were common and forgettable sights, but that white southerners were too dumb to know that invocations of racial violence could be anything but harmless fun. I don’t know whether Northam is lying about himself, but he’s not telling the truth about Virginia.
The American South’s history is dark and violent. Harm has been inflicted upon black people on a massive scale for hundreds of years. Southerners who are uncomfortable with hearing criticism of that history often lean on an excuse favored by advocates of and apologists for white supremacy across the country: It was a different time and a specific place, and it can’t be judged by today’s standards. That’s not exactly right. It wasn’t that people didn’t understand what they were doing for all those generations. It was that they faced no consequences for their actions, and if they felt inclined to do something, they were free to do it.
I grew up and went to college in the Deep South, with parents who did the same. In my 25 years in the region, I saw one person in blackface, and no Klan hoods ever. I encountered the man in blackface at a Halloween party in the mid-2000s. He had painted himself brown to dress up as the rapper Lil Wayne. Any memory I had of my own costume is lost to history, but I’ll never forget his. I also remember the handful of times I’ve ever heard a white person say the N-word out loud in front of me. White people say or wear those things because they want to scare or shock. It works. You remember.
My dad, raised in small-town Georgia in the 1950s and ’60s, often scoffs at the kind of hand-waving Northam is doing in an attempt to keep his job. Even half a century ago, even in the rural South, his conservative parents made clear to him how he was expected to treat people, and what kind of language they wouldn’t allow. Everyone knew right from wrong, and blatant acts of racism have always been blatantly racist. This was true when my dad was a kid, and it was certainly true among grad students in the mid-1980s.
A Klan hood has always been a Klan hood: It’s meant to terrify and intimidate, to make legible the violence intended by the person wearing it. You’re supposed to remember a Klan hood. Northam, I would expect, remembers too.