The alt-right’s Tiki-torch, khaki-pants parade on Friday night has birthed many a “Hitler luau” joke. But as journalist Ezekiel Kweku noted on Twitter this weekend, white supremacy has a history of cloaking itself in far more clownish attire. “That Klansmen dressed like fanciful numskulls was part of the way that they kept people from acknowledging their terror,” Kweku wrote.
Kweku’s point comes from the work of historian Elaine Frantz Parsons. In her book Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction and an extremely interesting 2005 article in the Journal of American History, Parsons explored the dark humor and cultural references the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan used when the group was new. Those familiar mass-produced white robes, elaborate titles, and hierarchies are an artifact of the second rising of the KKK, in the early 20th century. But in that first half-decade after the end of the Civil War, Klan members were running around in women’s clothes, wearing fake beards, serenading victims with out-of-tune ditties, and generally acting the fool—before, during, and after committing acts of violence against freedpeople.
One of the most telling parallels between how the Klan operated in the 1860s and how the alt-right operates today lies in what we might now call “trolling.” Drawing from racist stereotypes, and using performance techniques adopted from minstrelsy, carnival, or the circus, Klan members forced their victims to watch (and participate in) little comedy sketches. Because a Klan attack was scripted like a performance, the victim of the attack was transformed into a passive spectator—significant, as Parsons writes, in “the Reconstruction-era South, where freed people were increasingly asserting their own agency.”