Simon Balto Wins NEH Fellowship

January 28, 2020 - 8:45am

Simon Balto

Simon Balto, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies, has earned a highly competitive and prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Fellowship to enable him to pursue his research. Professor Balto is among just 99 NEH Fellowship recipients nationwide for the 2020-21 cycle, and one of only two from the state of Iowa.

NEH Fellowships are granted to individual scholars pursuing projects that embody exceptional research, rigorous analysis, and clear writing. The fellowships provide $60,000 to give the recipients time to conduct research or to produce books, monographs, peer-reviewed articles, e-books, digital materials, translations with annotations or a critical apparatus, or critical editions resulting from previous research.

Simon Balto: Racial Framing: Blackfaced Criminals in Jim Crow America

Professor Balto's project is a book on the practice and implications of Jim Crow-era criminal minstrelsy, or white criminals donning blackface before committing crimes. He describes his research:

"The controversy over early-2019 revelations that Virginia politicians had donned blackface in their college years has generated a resurgence of interest in the history and currency of blackface minstrelsy in the United States. In op-ed pages like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, nighttime news reports on MSNBC and CNN, and podcasts such as BackStory and NPR’s Codeswitch, scholars, journalists, and other commentators have tried to make sense of this phenomenon and its place in American life. At the root of these discussions has been a recognition of blackface as a complex and disturbing practice—steeped in racist mythology, beloved by white audiences, despised by black publics, stubbornly present in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American culture, and still informing American culture and racial perceptions to this day.

"And yet there is a whole other layer to the history of blackface that has been overlooked both in contemporary conversations about blackface and in all of the established literature on it. During the late nineteenth century and persisting well into the middle of the twentieth, at least hundreds (more likely, thousands) of white criminals drew from the blackface traditions that stage actors, composers, playwrights, and cultural marketers had forged, donning blackface before going out to commit crimes and, in the process, framing black people for them. They made use of a range of items from the blackface minstrels’ visual toolbox, including burnt cork, greasepaint, and field hand overalls. Some of them used gum, cotton, and other materials that could be used to widen the appearance of noses, enlarge cheeks, or make lips more prominent. In this process, they labored to present themselves as black criminals to divert attention from their own white crimes, which included all manner of offense, from murder to robbery to rape, and transcended region across the country. 

"Racial Framing: Blackfaced Criminals in Jim Crow America, explores this history in detail for the first time. It is a crucial history that reveals a great deal about culture, race, crime, and violence in America."

Professor Balto teaches, researches, and writes about African American history in the United States. His first book, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (University of North Carolina Press, 2019), explores the development of a police system in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods that over the course of the mid-twentieth century became simultaneously brutally repressive and neglectful. His writing has also appeared in TIME magazine, The Washington PostThe Progressive, the Journal of African American HistoryLabor, and numerous other popular and scholarly outlets.