This Black History Month, the Black community has been sharing their stories that haven’t been told over social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. What’s particularly unnerving to see is how many other individuals haven’t learned about Claudette Colvin, Jane Bolin and other Black heroes.
In my Sociology 110 class with Stephen C. Poulson, I was educated on how yearbooks capture history and how Poulson, along with students Hailey S. McGee and Tyler J. Wolfe, read through UVA, W&L and JMU yearbooks from 1890 to 1930, creating the study Racism on Campus: Yearbook Pictures from Prominent Virginia Colleges (1890-1930), where they showed normalization of racism in the pasts of these Virginia universities.
We all know that, as Virginians, racism was and is still prominent today, affecting marginalized communities. Because it’s Black History Month, understanding the racist pasts of our university and others is important to understand past mistakes and how they’re still repeating today.
In these yearbooks, Black people were shown as caricatures, belittling Black Americans and reinforcing stereotypes. Additionally, Minstrel shows were extremely popular in the U.S. during this time, where white males would do blackface and act as caricatures.
Although there may not be Minstrel shows now, it’s arguable that the mocking of Black people is still present through AAVE, or African American Vernacular English. Terms such as “period,” “chile” and speaking in a “blaccent” are common, especially on social media amongst Gen Z and in pop culture. Using these terms in a mocking manner or purposely using a “blaccent” can be offensive.
In the movie “Crazy Rich Asians,”actress Awkwafina forces AAVE in her language to act sassy and perform in a “gangster persona,” seemingly using AAVE to launch her career. In the other movies she’s in, such as “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”and “Oceans 8,” she plays the same “sassy” role.
The yearbooks also displayed Civil War remembrance and the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. W&L has a memorial of Robert E. Lee displayed in Lee Chapel on its campus, honoring the general and the old south. Additionally, these yearbooks hold content about the Ku Klux Klan and their relationship with the fraternity Kappa Alpha.
In the KA member handbook “The Varlet,” the organization upholds Southern ideals and even goes on to look up to Lee as a leader. Chapters of the fraternity also commonly held Old South celebrations with balls on plantations, with an antebellum theme.
The chapter of KA at JMU fortunately never celebrated the Old South, according to Mike Ingram’s article. However, there’s a portrait of Lee in the fraternity house. Idolizing the Confederate general is extremely problematic, sugarcoating the motives of the Civil War.
KA now has laws against displaying the Confederate flag, southern balls and Confederate uniforms, actions to put an end to the horrible stunts members of the fraternity have done in the past. Removing these symbols, however, won’t end racist ideals ingrained in KA’s past.
As a JMU student and person of color, I feel that my peers need to know about the past of not only our university but other Virginia universities. As a former Confederate state, we need to recognize how disgusting our past is and why it’s wrong to honor the Old South and the “lost cause.” Changing the names of buildings and acknowledging that Black lives matter is only the beginning; we need to all understand our past and learn from it.
Julia Cheng is a freshman media arts and design major. Contact Julia at firstname.lastname@example.org.