Blackface issues

Readers will recollect last year’s debate in NE about the ‘blackface’ tradition in British folk performance. NE in general supports established or revival traditions that can be understood as maintaining an element either of disguise necessary in a historical social context, or liminality. Sometimes, however, customs arise where people see things as ‘fun’ and do not realise the potential for offence; far more sensitivity is required than is sometimes apparent. Here are a couple of examples from recent news.

Lewes Bonfire Night, in Sussex, has long been one of Britain’s edgiest customs in terms of likelihood of causing offence. Each year, different celebrities are chosen to be featured as effigies which are then burnt (instead of Guy Fawkes, that is) – previous surrogate victims have included Thatcher, Gaddafi, Assad, Putin, Trump, Blair and Cameron, indicating that if you’re a self-serving politician you’re highly likely to be put to the fire.

One aspect of the event has finally been challenged, however, and dropped; a section of the parade that featured ‘Zulus’. At one time, it seems that some pains were taken to recreate typical Zulu body decoration, and the claim is made that it was originally (the bonfire custom dates back to the 17th century) a tribute to warriors’ bravery, but has slipped into stereotype and caricature, horrifying a S African Zulu dance troupe, ZuluTradition, booked for 2017. The organisation committee agreed to discourage blackface and ban caricaturing of black peoples. It is to be noted that other sections of the parade commemorate other peoples, such as Native Americans… [BBC Online, 3-11-17; Guardian, Times 4-11-17]

A counterpoint to Lewes’ readiness to look at itself, and an indicator of the potential political payload of blackface traditions is Holland’s Zwarte Piet. The way faces are coloured is very different from that in English mumming traditions, and it is very difficult not to see it as a clear caricaturisation of Africans. The rationale is that Zwarte Piet is assistant to St Nicholas, clearing chimneys on December 5 ahead of the saint’s Yuletide role as Sinterklaas, hence his blackness. Maybe – but as at Lewes, costumes in local civic events on Piet’s day have veered towards negative stereotypes, and in 2015 even the UN described it as a vestige of the Netherlands’ role in slavery. Some localities have abandoned or refashioned Piet in their Yuletide celebrations, but at least 70% have no plans to do so, and in 2017 the cause of Zwarte Piet was taken up by far-right organisations, and in a number of cases anti-Piet protesters were attacked. [Guardian, 29-11-17]

This illustrates the uneasy dichotomy than can exist in folk traditions, which can celebrate local diversity and identity in either a positive and inclusive or a negative and exclusive way. The latter was the route preferred in Nazi Germany, and apparently in some circles in contemporary Netherlands; and we are reminded that among the British National Party guidelines to members was a suggestion that members join or revive local traditions to use them as an active propaganda vehicle.

It is not a binary pro/anti issue, however, as we hope our discussions in NE have made clear. What is essential is that traditional teams using blackface do so in a self-aware manner and ensure that their disguise is not an offensive mimicry – you only need to compare the typical Zwarte Piet face – entirely black face and hands, with ‘Sambo’-like reddened lips – with the typical blackface style in English tradition – face and lips blackened, but rarely ears and neck, and not hands. The latter is clearly disguise, the former clearly racist.

Published in NE152 (March 2018), p.24


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