Sunday, 24 May 2015

Delightful, humorous, harmless fun or racist icon?

Dolls are objects that we have very special relationships with. We own them. We exert control over them, doing pretty much what we want to and with them. We may love them deeply and treasure them but we may also abuse and discard them. We give them personalities and names and project our inner most feelings onto them. We learn a great deal from our play with them - from nurturing to soldiering - and we often learn a great deal about the value that adults place on the people our dolls mimic.

Toys may be an emotional bridge between the world of adulthood and what seems to be a safer, simpler childhood world. Some adults never sever these childhood connections and stay emotionally attached to their toys; some become avid collectors of them. 

Soft toys, in both humanoid and animal form, commonly accompany children to bed. In societies and social strata in which children are sequestered in their own beds and rooms from an early age (sometimes from birth), isolated from each other and from the adults in their lives, the soft bodies of their toys provide the sense of comfort and security that comes from the proximity and touch of another being. We are not solitary creatures.

In patriarchal societies, boys are not expected to be nurturers or even to need much in the way of nurturing after a certain age – for fear they might grow up too soft to be ‘real men’. The traditional golliwog doll, like the teddy bear, was considered to be a suitable soft toy for a boy to cuddle and to keep him company at night.

It’s understandable that labelling a beloved childhood companion as a racist icon, touches a raw nerve in some people.

No fault lies with children who loved a golliwog doll but, when those children grow up and defend the toy as ‘innocent’ or ‘humorous’ or ‘ironic’ or, if they construct or perpetuate outright lies to deny its historical origins – then, they are at fault.

On RNZ’s The Panel on 23rd March, Rosemary McLeod exemplified the contradictory nature of some white people’s attachment to golliwogsShe described them as ‘delightful’ and says she owns several of them that she keeps on display in what she calls her ‘politically incorrect basket’.  

Ms McLeod’s labelling of her basket of golliwogs as ‘politically incorrect’ indicates that she’s well aware the toy offends the sensibilities of some people, so it is hard to escape the conclusion that she either thinks the taking of offence is unjustified and/or, she delights in giving it.  

If Ms McLeod were to be visited at home by a black person, would she leave her basket of golliwogs out in display? More to the point perhaps is whether she would think it’s acceptable to refer to a person of colour as a ‘golliwog’?  

If, as she claims, the toy is the embodiment of humorous, harmless fun, why wouldn’t she or any other white person feel free to use golliwog as a nickname for those of their fellow humans who have dark skin and tight curly black hair? And why wouldn’t black people be delighted with the name?

I have no doubt that Ms McLeod understands perfectly well the historical and contemporary realities that give rise to and are deeply embedded in racial epithets and is well aware of the harm and pain they can – and do cause.  

However, like all golliwoggers, she contrives to separate the toy from the racial epithet, and both toy and epithet from their origins in a caricature that had its genesis, and served a powerful ideological function, in a deeply and cruelly racist era.

 Ms McLeod’s fellow panellist, Tainui Stephens, blundered into the same moral and political morass when he said that he also likes golliwogs but prefers to call them ‘gollies’- as if leaving off the ‘wog’ part of the name somehow cleanses them of any negative associations.

The standard golliwogger argument is that white people who are offended by the dolls are motivated by liberal guilt. These guilt feelings stem from the (incorrect) belief that there are historical links between the character and institutionalised racial discrimination and oppression.

This white liberal guilt has spawned that most oppressive of political phenomena - political correctness. 

Far from being reasonable and honourable attempts to avoid ways of saying or doing things that insult, marginalise or exclude groups of people who suffer unfair discrimination, political correctness is recast as a rigid political and moral correctitude that tries to prevent the majority of people from being able to say and do what they want – in this instance, to manufacture, sell and own golliwogs.

The spinners and weavers of this narrative are usually a lot less forthcoming (in public at least) about what they think motivates black people who are offended by golliwogs.  But those who do express their views publicly are invariably of the opinion that black people who are offended are either being over-sensitive, are also in thrall to political correctness, and/or are playing the race card.

The bottom line is that other people’s experiences, their beliefs and sensibilities are way less important than the nostalgic fondness golliwoggers have for their little black toy.

There has been a recent increase in the sale of golliwog dolls in NZ, Australia and the UK and the original golliwog has been joined by other dolls are based on the stock characters from the 19th century American blackface minstrel tradition.

As well as the character that the traditional doll was modelled on, the (unruly) dandified coon, the cast included: the (semi-feral, naughty) piccaninny; the (stupid, lazy) field hand, and the (fat, docile) black mammy. The sexually promiscuous (usually light-skinned) wench character hasn’t made it into doll form – yet.

In an article I wrote for The Press in 2013 I asked whether anyone would think it was appropriate to have a doll based on a caricature of a person with a disability. It is unthinkable of course, yet people persist in arguing there is no harm in a doll that is  based on a caricature of a black man which dates from an era in which black people were still enslaved and which became wildly popular leading up to and during Britain's imperial zenith and America’s Jim Crow era.

The blackface minstrel tradition in the USA goes back to the 1820s.  It may have been introduced to the USA by an English actor but it was American comic actor Thomas Rice who popularised the form in 1828 with a song and dance act ‘Jump Jim Crow’, allegedly inspired by a crippled black stable hand.

Blackface minstrelsy appropriated aspects of African-American culture and created a cast of stock characters aimed initially at white audiences, which were both enthralled by the energy and humour, and comforted by the reduction of black people to a collection of heavily caricatured stereotypes.

Other ethnic and class based ‘comic’ stereotypes existed in the music hall tradition - the 'oleaginous Italian or Greek, the boozing, brawling Irishman, the sly and venal Jew and the ubiquitous rural idiot' - not to mention the various female stereotypes played by men in drag.

These stereotypes reduced individuals and cultures to a form of burlesque – at once hugely exaggerated and grossly simplistic – with characters that could be cast as affable and lovable or as threatening and hateful depending on what was wanted at any given point in time. (1)

Blackface minstrelsy’s cast of racial ‘types’ lampooned and dehumanised a specific racial group that was politically and economically powerless. In so doing, it served the interests of those who wanted to keep things that way.

Jim Crow, the capering, simple rural fool and Zip Coon, a dandified and sometimes dangerous blowhard, became so fixed in the popular imagination, their names became racial epithets and in the post-reconstruction Southern states, Jim Crow became the popular name for the segregationist legal system. The American phrase 'don't know zip' may also have come from the character's name.

The golliwog ‘family’ of dolls is based on these caricatures. They were derived from and fed back into negative stereotypes that were used to justify and legitimise, not just a segregationist and cruelly oppressive legal system, but the extralegal lynchings, rapes, beatings and robberies carried out for the most part by white people, a fair number of whom were also disenfranchised and dirt poor – as a calculated policy of division,  oppression and exclusion.  

This is why in my view, the golliwog is not, and can never be ‘just’ a doll.

There have been many attempts to rewrite history and recast the golliwog as a harmless toy that has nothing to do with the historical oppression of black people, let alone the continuation of it.

There are the risible claims that the term ‘wog’ is nothing to do with the golliwog - but stands for "worthy oriental gentleman" or similar.

Another, more complex, explanation is that the letters WOGS were stencilled on clothing issued to workers on the Suez Canal and stood for ‘Workers on Government Service’.  Black rag dolls - a representation of a ‘ghuli’ a desert demon- belonging to the children of the Egyptian labourers were taken back as souvenirs by British soldiers returning to the UK. The soldiers called these dolls Ghuliwogs.

The creators of this marvellous fiction don’t explain why workers on a project run by a French construction firm would have had clothing marked in that way, in English. Nor do they bother with the fact that Frances Upton chose to dress her 1890 Golliwogg character - which she said was based on an ‘ugly minstrel toy’ she had as a child in the USA - in the exact style of one of the stock characters of 19th century American blackface minstrel shows.

A very confused correspondent to the Manawatu Times, a Mr Brougham (the letter was also printed in The Press) made the claim that golliwog dolls actually represent chimney sweeps and are therefore not racist.  A letter I wrote rebutting this claim was not printed.

In Britain, the standard attire for chimney sweeps was a black top hat and tails and was thought to be discarded clothing of funeral directors. The sweeps’ indentured child labourers typically dressed in rags.  Sweeps in all countries wore black, rough clothing - they certainly never dressed in brightly coloured or striped tight trousers, red or blue 19th century style jacket, and an oversized bow tie or cravat.

Perhaps Mr Brougham was getting confused with the claim made by defenders of the Dutch ‘Zwarte Piet’ tradition, that the character’s blackened face and hands represents soot from the chimneys he climbs down when delivering presents to well-behaved children. 

That sooty chimney story doesn’t explain the Zwarte Piet character’s colourful - and clean – Rennaissance style costume, outsized red lips, black curly wig and golden earrings.

The Dutch festival of St Nicholas is a mix of pagan and Christian, and draws on Dutch and Spanish imagery. Festivals in Spain still celebrate the 'reconquista' – the Christian victory over the Moors - and Holland was a Spanish colony.  There were also strong trading and cultural links between Holland and the USA and American blackface minstrel troupes played in European theatres.

The 1850 children’s book that first established the black servant character in the St Nicholas narrative was written when slavery was still legal in the Dutch colonies. Holland was a major slave-owning and slave-trading nation and did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1863. (2) 

To try to argue that Zwarte Piet or Golliwogg had no connection with the contemporary reality of African slavery is indefensible both historically and morally.

There are people who just don’t know much history and who cannot be bothered to engage with it; there are people who want a version of history that doesn’t challenge their existing beliefs and practices, and there are people who have a powerful ideological agenda and who want to write out the fact of slave trading and slave owning in the countries in which these blackface traditions proliferated. 

What they all have in common is a refusal to acknowledge the fact that the repertoire of characters of blackface minstrel shows both flowed from racist and sexist attitudes and practices, and in turn helped to solidify and perpetuate them.

Of course black people were not all passive victims of this process; they re-appropriated the blackface minstrel form and used it. Most who worked in the tradition traded off the negative elements of blackface against the positive of being able to make a living that was safer and easier than the likes of picking cotton.  Some used it to be openly subversive.

We in New Zealand cannot avoid engaging with this history by declaring it to be ‘not ours’. We are recipients of those white American racist attitudes and traditions as much as we are recipients of European ones.

And we have our own uncomfortable history, traditions and contemporary realities that we need to acknowledge and to reconcile.

If people must collect and sell golliwogs, they should at least have the integrity and common decency to acknowledge where the toys came from and what role they and other negative race, class and gender stereotypes and icons have played in history – and are still playing.

1. The negative stereotypes and caricatures of Jews served Nazi ideologues well; and today in that most tragic of ironies, negative stereotypes and caricatures created and promulgated by Zionists promote anti-Arab feeling among Jews. 

2. Holland required former slaves to work as indentured, unpaid labourers with no legal status or protection for 10 years after abolition.

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