The embattled Democratic governor of Virginia said he was not one of the people in a racist photo in his medical school yearbook — but that he did once dress up as the pop star.
In defiantly refusing a chorus of calls from state and national Democrats to resign, Northam admitted he had donned blackface before, in 1984, when the yearbook in question came out. But it was to look like Michael Jackson at a San Antonio talent show. And he talked about the difficulties of blackening white skin.
“I had the shoes. I had a glove. And I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks and the reason I used a very little bit because – I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried that – you cannot get shoe polish off,” he said. “I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest because I had learned to do the moonwalk.”
Northam said he had not realized how offensive it was to darken his face to look like Jackson and distinguished the transgression from the photograph on his medical school yearbook that led to so many calls for his resignation.
“I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo,” Northam said, adding that “I recognize that many people will find this difficult to believe” because the day before he admitted he was in the picture.
He said he initially thought he was neither person in the photo and could not explain why, in both a written statement and a video Friday, he never clearly said it. Northam said that, as he “reflected” with family and former classmates, he came to “vividly” believe he wasn’t in the picture.
He said he never owned the 1984 yearbook or saw it until Friday and surmised someone had made a mistake by putting the picture on the page.
Northam still said he took responsibility for it and regrets that, in another yearbook page for the Virginia Military Institute, one of his nicknames was “Coonman,” a sobriquet that he said two unnamed older classmates gave him without explanation. Northam said that he has changed, as has the culture in the 35 years since the picture was included in the yearbook.
“The person I was is not the man I am today,” Northam said. “I ask for the opportunity to ask for your forgiveness.” He said he was examining the photograph in question and may use facial recognition software to help show he wasn’t in blackface in the yearbook photo. He didn’t explain how the software would eliminate him as a suspect dressed as a Klansman whose face was hooded.