Blackness as a Universal Vulnerability

Going back to this picture of T. D. Rice as “Jim Crow,” a question that needs to be asked is “what does it mean to be black” in the context of early blackface.

There are several answers.

Within early blackface, being black partly meant being understood through physical stereotypes such as dark skin, protruding lips, a particularly large nose, “woolly hair,” African dialect, a large derriere, and extended feet and heels. The primary social stereotype for blackness was the all-encompassing poverty represented in the “Jim Crow” picture through holes in shoes, wrinkled and torn pants, and a worn out hat.

The main connotation of physical and social stereotypes was that blackness was a degraded condition–particularly vulnerable, dependent, enslaved or barely out of slavery, deprived of the necessities of life, targeted by (white) violence, human in a form that can be readily questioned, denied, and laughed at. From the late 1820’s to the 1840’s, white men had an intense fear of falling into the kind of degradation associated with blackness. However, they also sought to distance themselves, master, and adapt the image of “degraded blackness” and T. D. Rice paved the way for doing so by adapting blackface make-up and costuming and performing as “Jim Crow.”

How extensive was the vulnerability involved in the representation of “degraded blackness?” The best analogy would be delirium tremens, a condition that still strikes alcoholics and drug users who suddenly reduce or eliminate their high levels of alcohol and drug consumption. In the first stage of delirium tremens (or mania a potu as it was most often called from the 1820’s-1840’s), men experienced the entire environment as assaulting them and themselves as intensely vulnerable with seemingly their whole bodies exposed to danger.

In representing himself as a black man, Rice was doing the same. It wasn’t just that his skin and hair were black or that he was wearing ragged and torn clothes, or that his shoes had gaping holes. Instead, Rice’s “Jim Crow” conveyed a total or universal vulnerability to the world. In Workingmen’s imagery, men could analogize themselves to vampires or incubuses that were attached to them and attacking them as though they were women. Later in the 1830’s, William Burton put songs about men being killed by mechanical arms and wooden legs that they could not control. More than “attached” these threats were partially occupying men and leading them to painful deaths.

But the figure of Jim Crow anticipated Burton by representing men as fully occupied by blackness and that blackness as an indicator of an extreme kind of vulnerability. For white men in Rice’s audiences, it was like delirium tremens with their whole exposed, almost as if their skin had been torn off and their insides exposed. This “display of degradation” is what gave blackface much of its power with white audiences.

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