Ralph Northam is somehow still the Governor of Virginia, making a deeply superficial attempt to atone for donning blackface in his youth by reading Roots. But if he thought the ever-churning political news cycle might give him the chance to hand the racism off to other elected officials, it seems wife Pam Northam had other ideas.
According to CNN, though Pam Northam was savvy enough not to let her husband moonwalk on national television to demonstrate his lack of racism, she did not consider the implications of handing two black children pieces of cotton and asking them to imagine being enslaved. This incident reportedly happened not in 1862, but just last week, per one Virginia State employee whose eighth grader was on a tour of the historic governor’s mansion along with other children who’d worked as pages during the state Senate session.
CNN reports (emphasis mine):
Leah Dozier Walker, a state employee who is the director of the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the Virginia Department of Education, wrote to Pam Northam’s office on Monday alleging that on a tour for state Senate pages, the first lady spoke in the mansion’s kitchen cottage — where slaves used to work — and gave black pages, including Walker’s eighth grade daughter, pieces of cotton. Walker’s daughter has said she did not take the cotton.
“During the tour of the Mansion Cottage, (Walker’s daughter) and two of her (fellow) pages were asked to hold cotton that the First Lady retrieved from a bowl on a nearby table,” Walker wrote in the letter. “Mrs. Northam then asked these three pages (the only African-American pages in the program) if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day.”
Though I suppose this isn’t as explicitly racist as, say, posing for a photo in blackface and/or a KKK hood and then choosing to use that photo in your medical school yearbook, it still seems like the Northams need to give Alex Haley a closer read.
“The Governor and Mrs. Northam have asked the residents of the Commonwealth to forgive them for their racially insensitive past actions,” Walker wrote in her letter. “But the actions of Mrs. Northam, just last week, do not lead me to believe that this Governor’s office has taken seriously the harm and hurt they have caused African-Americans in Virginia or that they are deserving of our forgiveness.”
Pam Northam claims she distributed the cotton to all the children in the tour group, not just the children of color, though she did put out a statement apologizing for upsetting Walker and her daughter. “I regret that I have upset anyone,” she said, according to The Washington Post, adding that she will work “thoughtfully and honestly” with historians to discuss the slaves who once lived and worked in the governor’s mansion. Perhaps a better move would be to leave the tour-leading to someone a little less tone deaf.