If you graduated from high school in the 1970s, as I did, your yearbook might be the only memorabilia that survives as a record of that period. Where today, teenagers can post in real time on Facebook or Instagram, it was the yearbook where testimonies were timelessly inscribed: sometimes funny, sometimes heartfelt, sometimes embarrassing and sometimes even mean. Recall Brent Kavanaugh’s yearbook page and allegedly lewd references to another student.
In light of what has been taking place in Virginia with the photo in Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook (and his admitted appearance in blackface), many of us who came of age during that period are thinking about our own experiences and how they were memorialized. Governor Northam’s controversy is about his medical school yearbook. But it’s our high school yearbooks that reveal much about who we were in our youth. Medical school, like college, brings together people of various backgrounds and experiences beyond the small communities that we often identify with. A high school, though, can be the heartbeat and coalescing space of many communities — consider the phenomenon of Friday night high school football — and can shape the mores and values that we carry through life.
My community, a suburb of Baltimore, was working class and overwhelmingly white. Most of my friends’ parents had not attended college. We had a few Vietnamese students at our school, I suspect as a result of the Vietnam conflict. And we had a small black population. I don’t remember having close friends who were black. Those I hung with were part of a group that shared my background and interests. Only when I went to college did I get to know students of color, differing sexual orientations and non-Christian faiths.
Going page by page through a yearbook can be cathartic. For some, high school was a difficult time in their lives. And looking at their yearbook might be the equivalent of an anxiety highlights tour. For others, it’s a bit “meh” (as my college-age daughter says). But it might cause us to consider where we were then, and where we are today — both figuratively (hopefully attaining personal growth and confidence) and literally (moving far from home or staying put). How students are depicted, particularly those of color, might cause us to reflect on our beliefs at the time, and how we have dealt with social change. It might get us to think about how our views have evolved. But it might show us that we have much work to do.
My yearbook reflects the ambiguity of that time. It includes images of hope and change. But it also includes depictions that carry racist overtones. There are pages devoted to a school sponsored Halloween party with images that might be considered blackface. Surprisingly (or sadly), in my first review of the yearbook, the photos did not strike me that way, but then my millennial son looked them over, and said, yep, that’s blackface.
At our school, we also had an “America Club” with a yearbook photo of mostly east Asian (probably Vietnamese) students. The goal of the club was to acquaint new arrivals with American customs and lifestyles — that is, make them more like us. We had a few language clubs, but they were designed to increase language proficiency. We had no clubs aimed at learning about specific cultural, religious or ethnic groups or sexual identities (remember, there was only one “officially” back then). But for the most part, my yearbook depicted us in positive ways. I was reminded by a friend that the yearbook adviser always wanted images to be respectful (but he seemed to have missed the blackface).
In one featured interview, a black student shared about her coming to our high school and the experiences she had. Surprisingly, she used the n-word in discussing how she at times had to deflect racial insults. Looking back now, she was brave and prophetic. The fact that the yearbook featured her and endeavored to advance social justice is heartening today.
Over 40 years since high school, my yearbook offered me a chance to consider my own growth. I still have much to learn. With time, youthful indiscretions and ignorance give way to wisdom and perspectives informed by experience and learning. We don’t know for sure whether those in blackface in my yearbook and in Ralph Northam’s (where there is also a photo of someone dressed in KKK garb) have evolved in their views. But having this discussion, particularly among my generation, is some evidence that we are moving in the right direction.
David J. Smith was raised in Baltimore County and now resides in Rockville. He heads a humanitarian not for profit and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org