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Virginians Examine State’s Recent and Past History of Racism in Effort To Move Forward

sketch of hands shaking
Illustration: Yasmine Jumaa/WCVE

Virginia’s recent blackface scandal re-ignited conversations about the state’s racist history, and its lasting impact. From kitchen tables to public forums, residents are talking about the many forms of racism that still exist and ways the community can respond. WCVE’s Yasmine Jumaa has more for Virginia Currents.


Part of Richmond’s history with blackface dates back to native born Freeman Gosden. He co-created and profited from the long-running show Amos ‘n’ Andy, and appeared in blackface, alongside his partner to promote it. Journalist Samantha Willis said the program made jokes at the expense of African-Americans.

Samantha Willis: They spoke in a really exaggerated black dialect. He was probably mocking black people that he'd seen growing up in Richmond.

For decades, Virginia’s state song was “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” written by James A. Bland, an African-American musician. The song was picked up by white singers who performed it in blackface.

Willis: Black ideas, black thought, black intellectual labor is co-opted by mainstream culture and other people who aren't black.

Fast forward to to 2016. More than two years before the news broke about Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, Richmond saw another blackface scandal. A local music promoter appeared in blackface and a minstrel costume at a Halloween party. Willis said she was repulsed, but she also saw an opportunity to educate the public.

Willis: I found that people did not understand why it is such a demeaning, racist behavior to don this type of characterized makeup, that really makes a mockery of black people and their history.

Willis co-founded Unmasking, a series of events first held in Richmond and later Charlottesville. The discussions examined the state’s racist history and policies, including the long-term impacts of housing, education and transportation laws that favored white people.

Willis: Richmond's whole history has been a traumatic episode for many of us -- and not just for black people, but also now white people who are dealing with this history of “my family enslaved people."

Through tracing her family’s tree, Richmond resident Brett Hoag found that her ancestors enslaved people. Hoag said the discovery was eye-opening for her.

Brett Hoag: So first there's an awareness and then there was a period of accepting that that is the way it is. And then wanting to learn more.

Hoag traced her ancestors' origins to Lancaster, Virginia. Some moved out to Tennesee, but most remained in the Commonwealth--including Blakemore family of Clarke County. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/WCVE)

Hoag said finding out about her lineage motivated her to learn about white privilege. She joined Coming To The Table, an organization that provides a space for dialogue between the descendants of enslavers and those who were enslaved.

Founded in 2006 out of Harrisonburg, Virginia, Coming To The Table encourages racial healing through acknowledging the trauma caused by slavery, and offering resources and community support to combat future injustices.

Hoag: Listening, that's the biggest thing. Listening to other people, acknowledging their pain.

Following the most recent scandals, there were a number of opportunities to listen and learn. VCU’s Robertson School hosted a roundtable with black journalists, including Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and Samantha Willis. Williams pointed out that most reporting on Northam’s yearbook page focused on the man in blackface and neglected the person wearing a KKK robe. Willis pointed to a Politico article on two polls that interviewed less than 1800 people combined. The article is titled: " Virginia voters -- including African-Americans -- have Northam’s Back."

Participants of VCU's event "Blackface, the Scandal and the Media: A Discussion About Racism in Virginia." From left: Jeff South, journalism professor in VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture; Mechelle Hankerson, reporter, Virginia Mercury; Clarence Thomas, associate professor of broadcast journalism in the Robertson School; Samantha Willis, journalist; and Michael Paul Williams, columnist, Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Photo: Joshua Smith/VCU News)

Willis: It's creating a false narrative. I think. It makes me wonder, you know, what's the motivation to push this undertone of he's been forgiven, let's move on. What other issues are at stake here? I feel like this is how things, racist issues, are regularly swept under the rug and not given the attention and time and depth of thought and full reporting that they deserve.

Composer and artist Paul Rucker also underlined the problems with false narratives. A panelist at a recent Black History Museum discussion, Rucker brought with him sheet music that called black people lazy and “chicken thieves.”

Paul Rucker: I think these false narratives are in our society and we need to actually address those false narratives and figure out where they came from.

While recent events may have been organized in response to Virginia lawmakers admitting they appeared in blackface, Rucker said the conversations need to go deeper.

Rucker: It’s not about blackface, it’s about psychological control. It’s about a history of terrorizing communities. It’s about systemic and structural racism being normalized in a city where life expectancy in one part of town is different than another part of town. It’s about the normalization of segregation, the separation in schools, workplaces and neighborhoods.”

A number of groups that focus on racial justice and equity are using the political scandals to further the discussion and maybe reach new people. RISE for Youth is organizing a series of “action-oriented conversations” that began this week. Later this month, Diversity Richmond will host an event focusing on structural racism and racial bias within the Central Virginia LGBTQ community. Reynolds Community College will also host a discussion about how to put equity into action -- specifically in the City’s East End. And later this year, Samantha Willis will continue the Unmasking series with an event in South Hampton Roads.

For Virginia Currents, I'm Yasmine Jumaa, WCVE News.

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