1980’s Radnor Blackface

Debby Armstrong

While opening up a high school yearbook, one expects a wave of nostalgia to wash over them. One can reminisce about countless laughs and memories shared with peers and favorite teachers. Yearbooks are expected to contain comedic pictures of spirit weeks and Halloween and capture sentimental moments from senior prom. However, in the 1982 Radnor year book, a different image is found. In three photos, Radnor students can be seen in blackface.

In the first of the three photos, a young man is standing among his friends with a striped hat, button-down shirt, khakis, and a black belt. His face, along with his arms, have been painted a dark shade; he sports sunglasses and a smile. The second photo displays a tall figure in a bow-tie and suit. Upon his face is a mask with bulging eyes, a large mouth, and dark complexion. The final photo shows another young man leaning over a locker, wearing a hula skirt and what appears to be a wig. Like his counterpart in the first image, his face, arms, chest, and legs have all been colored a dark shade.

These images represent centuries of turmoil and blatant racial hostility. Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, tensions between the now-free African Americans and the caucasian community members heightened. This turmoil continued into the 20th century as people of color continued to face lynchings, murders, rapes, beatings, and other acts of violence. In addition to brutality, they faced mockery and scorn. A common form of ridicule was known as “black-face,” in which a white person, typically a male, would paint their faces and body a dark shade and perform a song and dance. These acts would embody made-up characters supposedly resembling slaves, subjectively portraying their manner, speech, and appearance. One of the most infamous was Thomas Dartmouth’s display of “Jim Crow” in the mid 1800s. His derision became such a popular act in the south, it not only brought viewers from all around, but also influenced many others to put on similar shows. This even manifested into its own genre of performance: minstrel shows.

Following the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans obtained more liberties in society; however, they continued to endure degrading comments, acts, and laws. In the 1980s, decades after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms, and countless other displays of civil activism, black-face resurfaced. High school, college students, graduate students, and youth alike dressed in blackface for Halloween, costume parties, and entertainment year-round. These images, displayed in yearbooks, recently resurfaced.

One such scandal included Virginia governor Ralph Northam. Northman, in his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook, is seen posing with a peer: one in blackface and one as a Klansman. It has come to light that many other politicians have masqueraded in blackface, including Washington’s recent mayoral candidate, David Sponheim. He claimed his blackface “brought authenticity to his Barack Obama costume.” Oklahoma mayoral candidate, Bill Helton, put on a similar display when he performed a drag show in blackface. Politicians and other adult figures are now facing backlash for these choices. The mantra many have reiterated  in their defense is that “It was the 80’s.” This statement, disregarding the racist connotation, has been met with heavy criticism and outrage.

Several other blackface scandals have occurred recently, including in the fashion industry. One such example is Gucci’s turtleneck sweater. This piece, coming in a black color, is a sweater extending onto the face, similar to the bottom half of a balaclava, with an outline of bright red lipstick around the mouth. The sweater, after facing protests for its racist undertones, was removed from the market, and manufacturing has since been terminated. Additionally, Katy Perry released a shoe line, including multiple shoes with the same design in many different colors, including black, tan, beige, and gold. These shoes, displaying eyes, a nose, and bright red lips conjured a parallel to Dartmouth’s act, and have been met with aspersion. Perry has ceased all sales of the shoes and discontinued the line.

These instances of blackface represent ongoing ignorance and lack of sensitivity to the racial tensions and divides that continue to impact our country. This illuminates the need for more growth in our country and world regarding equality, tolerance, diversity, and acceptance.