Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has stayed out of the media spotlight since photographs of him posing in blackface or a Klan robe surfaced. In the past few days, however, he has agreed to a couple of interviews including one with CBS anchor Gayle King.
At the outset of the interview the governor references the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia’s shores in 1619, only he chose to refer to these slaves as indentured servants. King quickly responded by correcting the governor that he meant to say slavery. My social media streams quickly lit up with reactions to the oversight.
They included some people who suggested that the governor was correct in referring to the first Africans as indentured servants. They noted that a system of African slavery took time to evolve as the primary form of labor in colonial Virginia. This is true. Historians such as Ira Berlin have shown that for much of the seventeenth century African slaves worked side by side Native Americans and even white indentured servants. It was even possible for a small number of Africans to gain their freedom.
The larger question, however, of how Virginia went from – in the words of historian Edmund Morgan, ‘a society with slaves’ to a ‘slave society’ – is separate from the status of the Africans who arrived in 1619. Earlier today historian Rebecca Ann Goetz clarified this question with a twitter thread clarifying that these Africans were indeed slaves.
In fact, it is not just the beginning of slavery that needs to be commemorated. It is the story of how it evolved and why it persisted for close to 250 year. Just as importantly, it is a story about the role that white Virginians played in maintaining a slave society as well as the system of white supremacy that it reinforced and that outlasted it well after 1865.
If anyone needs to understand this it is governor Northam. His performance in blackface or Klan costume is part of this story of how white Virginians continue to maintain and lay claim to their place in a culture of white supremacy.