- Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said on Saturday that he once painted his face with shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume.
- Northam denied he was in a photo of two people wearing racist costumes after earlier apologizing in a statement and video.
- In the photo, one person is wearing Ku Klux Klan-style robes, while the other’s face is painted black.
- White actors routinely used blackface in the 19th century to create mocking depictions of slaves on stage.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has denied appearing in a 1984 yearbook photo of two men wearing racist costumes, walking back his earlier admission that prompted resignation calls.
However, Northam disclosed that when he was 25, he darkened his face with shoe polish as part of a talent-show costume in which he moonwalked like Michael Jackson.
“I didn’t realise at the time that it was as offensive as I have since learned,” Northam said during a press conference on Saturday, flanked by his wife Pam.
The photo, from an Eastern Virginia Medical School’s yearbook page, shows one person in blackface standing next to another person in a Ku Klux Klan-style robe and hood. The photo, first published by conservative blog Big League Politics on Friday, went viral and prompted calls for Northam’s resignation from multiple Democrats and Republicans.
“It is because my memory of that episode is so vivid that I truly do not believe that I am in the picture in my yearbook,” Northam said.
While refuting that he appeared in the blackface photo that prompted resignation calls, Northam said the revelation of his use of blackface for the talent show was not a sufficient reason to quit.
“I really do believe that both of them are wrong, Northam said. “But there’s a contract between the blackface and someone standing there in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, and me dressed up in a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest.”
The racist origins of blackface can be traced to the nineteenth century, when white actors painted their faces to depict slaves and freed blacks.
Its present-day use, particularly as part of Halloween costumes, is routinely and widely condemned. Late last year, the former NBC host and longtime Fox News personality Megyn Kelly was ousted following the controversy that erupted after she defended wearing blackface for Halloween.
Northam said the African Americans around him have since helped him realise why blackface is offensive.
“Growing up on the Eastern shore, I was in public school during desegregation,” he said.
“I have a lot of African American friends that I went to school with, played ball with. And I suspect I have as much exposure to people of colour as anybody. I have learned a lot.”
Northam also faced questions about why the yearbook photo referred to him as “coonman.” He said two people in his class gave him the nickname that’s used as a slur for black people, but he didn’t know why they did so.
“It ended up in the year book and I regret that,” Northam said.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.