In a May 2017 blog I shared my favorite short research assignment, which requires students to conduct secondary source research to place photographs and artwork from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries into historical context. I’ve thought a lot about that assignment over the past week since Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page became a source of public discourse. The image is startling to anyone who has studied the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries: two men, one wearing Ku Klux Klan regalia and the other, smiling, in blackface.
Public discussion of this image reinforces, for me, the importance of studying our national history. Rather than imparting our personal political views on our students, this situation is a case-study in why we need to let our students learn the lingering scars of history’s terrible truths for themselves. Contextualizing the men’s costumes within the history of race in the United States opens avenues of discussion in both contemporary and historical settings.
When I first present the image-based research project to my students they commonly respond that “there is nothing happening” in their assigned picture. I encourage them to reflect on the unspoken fact that photographs are taken to memorialize -- a moment, an experience, a relationship -- deemed important to someone. If we frame the discussion of Northam’s yearbook page in these parameters, we ask our students to confront the overt symbols of racism that continue to plague our country nearly two centuries after phrases like “blackface” and “Jim Crow” entered our public discourse.
So when your students ask about the Northam image, suggest that they do some research. Googling the term “Blackface,” for example, will bring students to articles about the practice as a form of entertainment for white people in the 19th century. “Blackface: The Birth of An American Stereotype” (National Museum of African American History & Culture) explains the concept with visual examples that can help students to recognize how prevalent the custom was in the 19th century. Ask students to brainstorm times when they have seen blackface (or references to it) used in popular culture. Online resources about the Ku Klux Klan can illuminate student understanding of the longevity of the terror organization. Particularly useful is “Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism” (Southern Poverty Law Center), which provides a chronological history that enables students to see how the KKK has remained an active agent of hate for more than a century.
Finally, ask your students to think about the time in which Northam’s yearbook was published. What was going in 1984 that might have contributed to its inclusion?
Whatever reaction you may personally have to the Northam picture, do not allow your students to think “nothing is happening.”