Simon Balto on Blackface Criminals

In his paper on blackface crime, discussed at the CSMCH on October 13, 2020, Simon Balto (University of Iowa) draws attention to ‘a limit of the archive.’ There are no records that definitively account for the number of white Americans ‘who donned blackface while committing crime in an effort to frame black people for their sins.’ But it clearly happened, acknowledged by Frederick Douglass in the 1880s, Ida B. Wells in 1900, The Nation in the 1920s, and in the 1932 Asa Wright case with which Balto begins his article. Balto also provides a wealth of examples from regional and local newspapers across the United States. Unsurprisingly, black newspapers and organizations were most concerned by this phenomenon, which they recognized as a specific, widespread, racialized problem, rather than simply isolated novel cases.

Despite this rich evidence base, Balto writes that the figures on blackface criminals are literally countless – there is no way to know how many people did this, and we only know of the ones who were caught. But Balto does draw some conclusions. Firstly, that white criminals donning blackface drew from a longer history of minstrelsy and performance, and that in doing so they both reflected and contributed to the rising myth of ‘black criminality.’ Balto later clarified that blackface criminals probably did not consciously engage with the fact that they were contributing to the conceptualization of black criminality, and that for most, the appeal was simply that they would not be convicted of the crime if witnesses described a black person. As such, blackface crime followed the ‘enormous expansion and deeper reach of minstrelsy into everyday American life’ in the late nineteenth century, with commercially packaged materials making blacking up easy and cheap. Balto’s examples vary in gender and class identities; though, as Mark Newman (University of Edinburgh) noted in his response, there seems to be a predominance of individual rather than group acts. This distinguishes the blackface criminal from related Ku Klux Klan activity after the Civil War, in which groups of Klansmen would sometimes adopt black appearances in their night-time raids on African American communities.

In her response to the paper, Kate Dossett (University of Leeds) highlighted several questions about identity and the allure of blackness as performance, noting that within entertainment minstrelsy, the concept of actually being mistaken for black was horrifying. Balto writes that ‘going into blackface to commit a crime was, of course, a form of disguise,’ drawn from ‘the larger well of ideas about crime and race then reshaping American society.’ But was ‘the whole point for them to escape detection’? Were blackface criminals simply focused on appearing black to elude capture? Both Dossett and Newman questioned this point, as apprehending police or white citizens were more likely to shoot and therefore kill a suspected black criminal than a white one, indicated by Balto’s sources. In her exploration of identity and performance, Dossett therefore posited that for some, the performance of blackness may have added intrigue and excitement to an otherwise mundane crime. She also raised scholarship on racial ‘passing,’ a literature that Balto admitted he was not familiar with but which could offer fascinating frameworks for understanding the actions of blackface criminals and their perception of an audience. In particular, Dossett highlighted Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke, 2015), which traces methods to criminalize and dehumanize the black, indigenous, and mixed-race body throughout colonial North American and US history, and their continuation through modern but equally racialized forms of surveillance.

For Newman, Balto’s paper raised key questions of chronology, and he probed Balto’s suggestion that these crimes stretched from the 1880s to ‘the Civil Rights Era.’ Newman suggested such an approach required further definition and explanation, and perhaps a clearer engagement with work on the chronology of the African American freedom struggle. Balto clarified that incidents of blackface criminality continued into the 1960s, but that they were much rarer after the 1930s, noting that civil rights campaigners in the 1950s and 1960s worked to eliminate the last vestiges of blackface entertainment. He therefore intuited that blackface crimes declined in the period as kits and materials became less readily available and the practice as a whole declined. Here we can see the cultural value of Balto’s work, even if the data itself is inconclusive. The practice of minstrelsy, so entrenched in US entertainment customs, did eventually fade (although not completely). But if it can be demonstrated that the phenomenon bled into practices other than entertainment, as Balto’s article suggests, we may increase our understanding of minstrelsy’s inherent grip on the American consciousness, as a method of both codifying whiteness and condemning blackness, rationalizing violence and segregation.

As Newman suggested, and in line with scholarship on minstrelsy as performance, we may be able to deduce a clearer profile for the blackface criminal. After all, blackface performers were often working-class Irishmen or from other European immigrant groups whose own whiteness had not yet been assured. It may be that, like minstrel performers, blackface criminals sought to authenticate and demonstrate their whiteness, separating their ‘black’ criminal selves from the whiteness they desperately sought, performing a black criminality that they hoped would elevate their own image and the disputed whiteness of their communities.

Balto’s complex history of whiteness, criminalized blackness, and the specific act of blackface criminality raised powerful questions for those lucky enough to read his paper. Dossett’s and Newman’s responses added important context around the performative nature of the act, the wider literature of racial ‘passing,’ and discussion of the article’s and therefore the practice’s chronology. The event inspired fascinating questions about our historical and contemporary understanding of race as a constructed and performed identity, and the continued consequences of social and political systems built upon the antiblack relations of slavery and segregation.

Bio: Dr Megan Hunt is Teaching Fellow in Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh. She is working on her first monograph, Southern by the Grace of God: Religion, Race, and Civil Rights in Hollywood’s South, having previously published on Selma, Mississippi Burning, and The Help. She has also researched and published on the place of African American history in UK schools, with her most recent co-authored article for the Journal of American Studies available via open access here. Megan also sits on the steering committee of Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) and is a co-founder of The Precarity Project.