The Blackface Photo: Northam as Michael Jackson

Governor Ralph Northam astonished the world at a press conference earlier this year when he denied appearing in blackface in a notorious 1984 medical school-yearbook photo — and then volunteered that he had darkened his skin that same year as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance contest.

The governor was widely mocked at the time for this admission and his seeming willingness to demonstrate the superstar’s signature moonwalk move in front of the cameras. However, a recently issued report by the McGuire Woods law firm was unable to find conclusive evidence that the governor appeared in the photograph, and, politically, the controversy seemed destined to fade away.

I beg to differ. My reading of the report finds that the law firm left many avenues of inquiry unexplored. Most significantly, the report failed to consider what be the most plausible interpretation of the photo: The figure in blackface was Northam dressed up as Michael Jackson!

Consider some points of similarity with the photo of Jackson below, taken in 1984:

Michael Jackson is wearing sunglasses. The figure in the photo is wearing sunglasses.

Michael Jackson is wearing a broad-rimmed hat. The figure in the photo is wearing a broad-rimmed hat.

In the photo to the left, Jackson’s hat is black, not white like that worn by the figure in blackface. But Jackson donned a wide variety of head wear, including a white fedora with a dark band that closely matches the hat worn by the figure in blackface.

A photo of that fedora, with Jackson’s signature, can be seen in a Pinterest photo, posted by the MJJC Legacy Team Project dedicated to “honouring, preserving & defending the legacy of Michael Jackson.”

Another point of similarity: the bow tie.

The King of Pop wore bow ties. At right, he appears in the widely viewed video of his smash hit, “Billie Jean” from the 1982 Thriller album. A Google photo search reveals dozens of other photos in which the King of Pop was wearing bow ties.

How about the plaid pants?

Despite his superstar status, Michael Jackson was known to wear hideous plaid pants in his youth, as seen to the left.

The similarities in dress may be pure coincidence. One might accuse me of cherry picking from a massive photo gallery of one of the most famous celebrities on the planet. But the figure in blackface was not dressed in random garb typical of the mid-1980s. He was clearly dressed as someone. Given Northam’s admitted admiration for the entertainer, in strains credulity to think that the get-up was of anyone else.

Cherchez la femme!

One person who could confirm or deny the Northam-as-Michael-Jackson theory is the person in the Klan robe. As noted in the McGuire Woods report, many have conjectured that the individual was a woman. The report cites as evidence the figure’s shorter height and smaller stature, as well the narrow belt. To those observations I would add the presence of what appears to be a long necklace draped around the individual’s neck that falls to mid-chest level (the very bottom of which is obscured by a beer can).

If the individual was a female appearing in the same photograph as Northam, then it was possible that she was his date. The McGuire Woods report noted that Northam had a “girlfriend at the time” who told him “she had never seen the Photograph.” There is no indication that the investigators queried the girlfriend independently, and they did not identify her.

If the “girlfriend” was the figure in the Klan robe, it would be understandable, given the public shaming and humiliation that would accompany any admission to being the person in the photo, that she sought to distance herself from the situation. Northam told the McGuire Woods team that he reached out to her after the photo went public because “she liked to take pictures.” Although the former girlfriend denied having seen the photograph, it is worth noting, she did not deny being in the photograph.

Any serious investigation into the photo would seek to track down the girlfriend and interview her directly. It would be useful to check her recollection against Northam’s. The McGuire Woods report’s failure to follow up this obvious lead represents a significant deficiency.

Fat legs, skinny legs

After initially apologizing for his appearance in the photo earlier this year, Northam subsequently talked to several of his friends and classmates in addition to the ex-girlfriend and convinced himself that he could not possibly have been the figure in blackface. According to McGuire Woods, one reason was that “the person in blackface had much larger legs than he did in medical school.

In addressing the disparity in leg sizes, let’s compare two photographs found on his yearbook page: one of Northam holding a beer can and the one of the figure in blackface.








Do the legs in the one photo look any “larger” than in the other? They look close to identical to me. Perhaps some expert in digital media can devise a way of measuring their girth. In the meantime, I would suggest that the governor was engaging in wishful thinking.

Bad teeth, worse photo

Another reason Northam cited for believing that the figure in blackface was not him was an observation (in the report’s paraphrase) by a friend of his, a practicing dentist, that his teeth “had never looked as good as the individual in blackface.” It’s true that the smile does appear bright in contrast to the blackface. Here is a blow-up of the image:

However, how the dentist could draw a conclusion about the condition of the person’s teeth based on a photograph of such poor quality is beyond me. The level of detail is so abysmal that individual teeth are not even visible.

This may not be the best reproduction. I captured the image from a New York Times website reproduction of the Facebook page. Some loss of detail undoubtedly has occurred. But the McGuire Woods confirms my reading when noting a forensic facial recognition report from Alston & Bird, the law firm representing Northam in the matter, to which the law firm had access. The forensic report found the image to be “not of sufficient quality to conduct a comparison with other photographs.”

The McGuire Woods team did not question the dentist to determine what basis he had for making the observation.

A Bud in hand in worth two in the bush

In explaining why he thought it impossible that the blackface image was of him, Northam also went on at some length to explain that he was not a big partier while in medical school. He made several observations: He would go to low-key P.O.E.T.S. events, but they were administration-sanctioned mixers supplied by a single keg of beer. Most of his friends were in the year ahead of him. He was away most of the year on rotations. He remembers a retreat on the first week of medical school in which drinking occurred and recalls not condoning the behavior of some of his classmates. And he stayed in the library longer than most of his friends.

These excuses are remarkable for their feebleness. In this list, Northam acknowledged attending two or more events were drinking occurred, and he conceded as well in his McGuire Woods interviews that “people in his class were big partiers.” The notion that having friends one year older than he seems particularly ludicrous. By what logic were older students less inclined to drinking and partying?

Most damning, Northam’s protestations conflict with the evidence of his own yearbook page. In one photo (reproduced above), he is holding a beer can. He also supplied the following yearbook quote: “There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.” The quote is obviously tongue-in-cheek, meant to be amusing, but it’s a pretty clear indication that he thought lightly of drinking. The yearbook page thoroughly rebuts any suggestion that he was neither a drinker nor partier.

Questions of chronology

The McGuire Woods report fails to subject any of Northam’s speculations to critical analysis. It fails in another regard: It doesn’t establish even a basic chronology.

In his comments to the McGuire Woods interviewers, Northam noted that he was away for most of the year on rotations, including one at Leigh Memorial (in Hampton Roads) where he was “getting up at 3 a.m. for call” and a rotation at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in pediatrics. The report failed to nail down which year or semester in which these rotations took place. Similarly, Northam said that the dance contest in which he admitted to dressing like Michael Jackson took place in the fall of 1984 in San Antonio, when he was doing an externship at an Army burn unit and surgery center. The McGuire Woods report does not clarify that he would have graduated by then and would have been serving in the Army at the Brook Army Medical Center.

Northam would have us believe that he participated in a dance contest in San Antonio while on an externship yet he did not drink and party while on rotation at Leigh Memorial. There is no indication that McGuire Woods saw a possible contradiction in these claims or followed up by asking Northam to reconcile them.

An alternative narrative

Interpreting the photo as Northam-in-Michael-Jackson-blackface is the more  economical solution — economical in terms of the number of unproven assumptions and leaps of faith required to believe it — than Northam’s explanation that the photograph was placed in the yearbook in error. Here is how I would frame the narrative:

  • Northam attended a costume party at Eastern Virginia Medical School attired as Michael Jackson. He applied blackface and wore a  broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses, bow tie, plaid pants, and an Afro wig — all elements widely associated with Jackson’s public persona, and all readily available.
  • At that event, someone took a photo of Northam standing next to a shorter person — possibly a date — dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb.
  • Northam was amused enough by the photo to submit it for inclusion in the 1984 yearbook. The submission date would have occurred late in the spring semester of 1984.
  • Northam was amused enough by the Michael Jackson impersonation that he used it again at a dance contest when he was stationed in San Antonio.
  • Racking his memory 35 years later, Northam recalled dressing as Jackson for a dance contest but has either forgotten or chosen to deny that  he was the person the EVMS yearbook.

If my interpretation stands up, the least of Northam’s offenses was donning blackface, a practice considered offensive in some quarters at the time but not others. But consorting with a friend in Klan robes in a context that makes light of the Klan leaves Northam no wiggle room. The incident would not be merely a case of projecting 2019 norms back to 1984. Even 35 years ago, the Klan was universally reviled. It would be impossible to explain away the racist connotations.

At the very least, if readers do not regard my explanation as conclusive, they must acknowledge that the McGuire Woods report leaves many questions unanswered, leaves many stones unturned, and is not close to being the final word on the subject.

Note: This post has been updated extensively with new photographs and commentary.

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4 responses to “The Blackface Photo: Northam as Michael Jackson”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Nat King Cole, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Colin Powell – doesn’t matter. It was still, even then, a really stupid thing for anybody (especially a future doctor) to do and then get photographed. And then there is the other idiot in the robe. Believe me, 20 people who attended that school have ideas who is in that photo, but either said nothing, admitted they couldn’t prove it or ignored the emails or phone calls from the law firm, which can now say – hey, we reached out to everybody!

  2. Northam’s black-face was a smoke screen, taking attention away from his support of infanticide. He could apologize for black face but not for his current support of infanticide.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Some of the best photo analysis EVER!

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I agree, Peter. Next some sleuth will find young Michael Jackson decked out in a button down shirt collar, bow tie, and blue sport coat, and photo shop it over those plaid pants of his. Plus now I’m thinking that I’m am seeing an Afro-wig under that jaunty angled Retro Panama – Stetson Panama Fedora Hat that honky med student is wearing in his year book, gotta be, that gig’s way above 1980s Va. college level. It’s Va. med school graduation day party rig for sure.

    Note too the hands on the idiot in the peaked hat and robe. A girl’s or a male med graduate school hands. A girl’s, I’d say.

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