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Eric Lott on Ralph Northam and the History of Blackface


To discuss the subject of blackface and its historical role in American politics, culture, and racism, I spoke by phone with Eric Lott, who teaches American studies at the cuny Graduate Center and is the author of “Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy & the American Working Class.” An edited and condensed version of our conversation is below.

What did you think when you saw the photograph?

Here we go again. [Blackface] never seems to die as a collegiate, fraternity activity, which follows on decades of local performances of various kinds, Kiwanis Clubs and Rotary Clubs, which follows on the very long history of both Hollywood and vaudeville stage performance going back into the early nineteenth century.

The photo was obviously offensive and awful, but it was also weird if you don’t know this culture. There is a guy in blackface and a guy in a Klan hood. What’s the joke they are going for?

I know. I was trying to puzzle that out because that really is—to situate it in full context, with the paired costumes—an interesting thing to try and figure out, over and above the embrace of the blackface guise. And there is more than one of those, too.

Read entire article at New Yorker