Race Matters

Nothing innocent about blackfacing

Morris dancers claim blackfacing is nothing to do with race but history tells another story, says Lester Holloway

News today that Morris dancers at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival will no longer be able to black-up after this year has caused predictable howls of outrage. A spokesperson for the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup was quoted as denying any link between the folk tradition of blackface and race. But that's not quite true.

Theresa Jill Buckland notes, in her 1990 book 'Black Faces, Garlands, and Coconuts': “For most boys blackening the face was sufficient to identify themselves as n*****s.” She also examined coconut dancing, which was known as ‘niggering.’

Buckland points out that the coconutting tradition originated when Moors from north Africa settled in England, inspiring a stage melodrama in 1824 called ‘Agamemnon, the Faithful Negro’ and the bluebeard pantomime in Bradford which included ‘a number of juvenile black slaves, who perform the Cocoa Nut Dance.’

There is also evidence not only that the name ‘morris’ dancing harks from the term ‘Moorish’ but that Moorish dancing was absorbed into British folk customs. Bloody foreigners, coming over here, giving Brits their traditional culture.

Not all Morris dancers blacken their faces, indeed nor do all ‘mummer’ festivals, but some of those that do take their ‘inspiration’ from African people, as Patricia Bater noted in her research for the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition.

One mummer festival that actually admits to an African connection is the annual winter solstice celebration in Padstow in Cornwall. Until recently they used to call it ‘Darkie Day’ and claim, dubiously, it began after Cornish locals witnessed slaves dancing for joy on the deck of a grounded slave ship.

There is no historical record of any slave ship running aground in the area, and even if it did – which it didn’t - it is highly unlikely the slavers would undo the chains of Africans in the hold to dance merrily on the deck.

The late and legendary MP Bernie Grant condemned the tradition as "offensive to black people all over the place" and Diane Abbott later put down a Commons Early Day Motion about Padstow. But locals still don comic Afro-wigs and black face paint to this day each early January. A number of minstrel songs were adopted by Padstow and right up to the 1980s local schools were still teaching children a tune called ‘Little N****r.’

Interestingly there is a connection between Cornwall and the blackface coconutting of Lancashire; migrating workers from Cornwall travelled north to Bacup to work in the coal pits of nearby Rossendale.

Bacup made the headlines earlier this year when the local Tory MP, Jake Berry, invited several blackfaced Britannia Coconut Dancers into a parliament bar to ‘launch’ an ale which featured a pump badge that was deemed offensive by Commons staff. The dancers were also denied entry to the bar.

British folk didn’t just crib influences from visiting Moors, there is also an American connection.

Thomas D Rice, popularised blackface under the name ‘Daddy Jim Crow’ and his visit to Britain saw the act become very successful.

"N****r minstrel" troupes also made the rounds in Britain, overlapping in some areas with homegrown customs like mumming: a group called The Gowongo Minstrels performed in Padstow just after Boxing Day in 1899 The first known photo of Padstow's Darkies dates from around the same time.

Over a century before the Black and White Minstrels were, for a period, Britain’s most popular television show, American minstrelsy – which arose from the background of slavery - had a parallel audience in British stage shows which, in turn, influenced working class folk traditions.

The ‘British’ golliwog doll, popularised by Enid Blyton, also originated from segregated Jim Crow America, the product of American illustrator Florence Kate Upton.

Bater writes:

“Eugene Stratton, a white American who found fame in Britain and became possibly the most successful performer of these songs in England. He was billed as ‘The Dandy Coloured Coon’ after the title of one of his songs, and performed mostly as the sole blackface act in Variety shows.”

Yet while the German theaterzirjusse circus pantomimes of the pre-Hitler Weimar period, mocking Jewish people, have long since disappeared it appears that blacking-up as a parody of black people remains acceptable.

Eric Lott, in 'Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class', wrote:

"The black mask offered a way to play with the collective fears of a degraded and threatening -and male - other while at the same time maintaining some symbolic control over them."

Early civil rights campaigner Frederick Douglass condemned blackfacing as “…the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”

According to Blair L. M. Kelley, an associate professor at North Carolina State University:

“Minstrelsy desensitized Americans to horrors of chattel slavery. These performances were object lessons about the harmlessness of southern slavery. By encouraging audiences to laugh, they showed bondage as an appropriate answer for the lazy, ignorant slave. Why worry about the abolition of slavery when black life looked so fun, silly, and carefree?”

While there are many differences between American minstrelsy and blackfacing British folk traditions, historical evidence linking UK mummering and morris-dancing with American influences makes the parallel relevant. It is a distinctive British counterpart to American minstrelsy.

Black impersonators are in some ways both exploiting and dehumanising people of African descent. Blackface mummering and Harlequinade processions post-dates the period when it became fashionable for the upper classes to have black servants.

Blackfacing was not just used to disguise the working class while begging during festivals, although there is evidence for that. Nor was the blackening of faces in Victorian Britain just used as a punishment for drunkenness or criminality, although it was too.

There is enough historical evidence to connect the practice directly to the influence of the Moors, slaves and servants in Britain and crude American stereotyping shows imported directly from the post-emancipation period when Jim Crow oppression was at its’ height.

Supporters of the 'English' folk tradition claim that blackfacing has nothing to do with race but their protestations certainly need to be contrasted with historical evidence and not reported as if this were undisputed fact.

Lester Holloway
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