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

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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 exaggerate the features, language and character of black people while denying black people the right to represent themselves or anyone else in performance.

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.

In the early 20th century, even some of the most popular entertainers, like Judy Garland, used blackface at times.

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 of Virginia 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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