Facing controversy

We’ve had interesting feedback on the issue of blackface traditions. Here are two letters expressing different attitudes to those in NE 148 and 149 – and the editor summing up the issue as he now sees it, a little less wholehearted a supporter of blackface than previously…


Layla Legard, Leeds:

In response to the article regarding blacking up in Morris in NE148, I feel I must respectfully disagree. The few academic sources I have encountered investigating this issue have found solid links between minstrelsy in the music halls and a cross-over with Morris – indeed some sides were historically recorded as referring to blacking up as ‘niggering up’. It is easy to forget that most of the Morris folk traditions are Victorian in origin (obviously there are exceptions) when black people would have been more commonly encountered in England, even in provincial areas. Other sides were recorded to use several different colours for disguises and it’s arguable that the prevalence of blackface paint in border sides is mainly due to the influence of the Shropshire Bedlams in the 1970s, who were quite revolutionary and unique in their appearance at the time.

The tired and inappropriate argument that folk dancers in Africa ‘white up’ is irrelevant in the circumstances; those dancers are not mimicking white people, nor have the indigenous people of Africa enslaved white people for centuries, mocked them or created caricatures of them using face-paint, with discrimination, violence and mockery in the form of these caricatures still continuing to this day, such as has occurred with discrimination against black people.

The folk community is, unfortunately, often unintentionally exclusionary to non-white people and the attitude that ‘I am left wing therefore I cannot discriminate’ is simply not true if we fail to listen to people of colour who express their discomfort and concern. I’m certain the intent of most sides is not to offend and blacking-up helps them to feel transformed into the spirit of the dancer rather than their everyday selves. This is of course a wonderful thing, and one I hope can continue for many years, with sensitivity and an understanding that the tradition in itself can be problematic. However, by claiming the issue is black and white (apologies for the terrible joke!) when it is in fact a very grey area does nothing to help either side of the debate understand each other.


Remco van Straten, Belfast:

I am not doubting, at all, that the blacking up of morris sides does not have a racist origin. But does your correspondent (NE149) have to be so UKIP about it? “This is our tradition” seems to be the message, “and damn anyone else’s feelings”. What is wrong with welcoming more recent immigrants to our countries and including them in our traditions, even if that means that our traditions have to change?

We live in 2017. Traditions need to be maintained but also to be alive, and that means that, where needed, they adjust to the sensibilities of the times. In my native Holland we’ve got the problematic Zwarte Piet (also blackface, but definitely racist), and the same ‘but it’s our culture’ Kipper-like crowd defending it.

Does a non-racist origin excuse modern blackface from all criticism? The swastika was originally a sun-wheel symbol, but Hitler really messed that up. Likewise, gollywogs, Al Jolson and Black & White Minstrels should put the kibosh on blackface in any shape.

Why make blackface the hill to die on, because ‘it’s Tradition!’, when I see a distinct lack of period detail in regular sides’ dress? An event we visited not so long ago saw morris men in loafers, vests with modern badges, M&S shirts, and one of them had a colander on his head. No hobnail boots, no period-authentic costumes. Since guising is a part of the act – couldn’t they have worn blue make-up instead of having blacked up?



Editor, John Billingsley, responds:

The response to this topic has been refreshing, and I’m grateful to these correspondents for offering the other side of the argument, and for encouraging me to consider the issue afresh.

First, though, I would take issue with Layla over her suggestion that African face-whitening is irrelevant as they are not mimicking white people – but the guising point is that these old traditions were not mimicking black people either, so it is indeed relevant. Also, while the Bedlams were instrumental in encouraging face-blacking, John Kirkpatrick initiated it as a spin-off from mumming and other begging traditions, where face-blacking was prevalent. Layla refers to academic sources – presumably these would primarily be the ones by Bater and Buckland1, and I would recommend readers interested in the subject to follow these up (especially Bater’s very balanced and thorough discussion, which has informed my conclusion). Both indeed note the connection with 19th-century minstrelsy, and Buckland echoes this in relation to the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup. However, both also note the hiatus in folk traditions following World War 1, and how subsequent revivals have construed the events differently from their predecessors, viz. more as celebrations of local community and home-grown culture.

In so doing, it is shown that traditions change and depart from previous connotations when the traditions themselves find that times have changed around them.

The obvious question is how black people feel about these traditions – and an equally obvious point is that it is not for white people to speak for them. Bater again addresses these points, finding that the people she speaks to are accepting of the blackface custom once they understand its background, and in this vein I recommend listening to the black film-maker Michael Jenkins on his visit to Padstow;2 Jenkins mentions how much easier he felt with it once he knew the background better – but it must also be admitted that this event has certain throwback elements among the performers who delight in singing a racist song. In 2005, Mark Morley, a black Briton who had experienced racial violence in 1970s Scotland and then moved to Cornwall, wrote about Padstow;3 “I can vouch for the humour, healthy sense of community, deep traditions and absence of racial sentiment at [Padstow’s Darkie Day]”, contrasting it with football – “far from being helpful, over-sensitivity to race can actually accentuate ethnic differences”, and Bater describes how the Director of Public Prosecutions, presented with copious video material of the event, concluded ‘I have seen no evidence of an intention to stir up racial hatred, or any likelihood of it being stirred up’. It cannot be denied that racism exists, and may piggyback on certain events, just as the BNP and EDL have tried to piggyback other English customs. It is essential to isolate and expel such elements, not abandon the whole thing.

So what is the background? For Morris, much of it being relatively modern, it is a more complicated picture,4 but the origins of blackface are clear in mumming. Folk events were generally created by poorly-paid labourers and workers, and were attempts to supplement meagre incomes. However, in the moral climate of the 16th and 17th centuries, when blackface emerged in the folk calendar, and into the early 20th century, this was looked on by society’s moral guardians as begging, and carried a stigma. As those moral guardians were often their employers, it was wise to apply disguise and costume; and by making the effort to distance oneself from one’s everyday persona, those ‘betters’, even if they could identify the players, could better overlook the transgression. In addition, such ‘guising’ helped performers to act outside their everyday selves. Why black? Because one thing everyone had, even the poor, was a fire, and soot – a free easily-available source of disguise. As for black persons – people were far more familiar with sweeps, miners, blacksmiths, etc., than with ethnic blacks, so it was part of everyday, not ‘other’, experience.

I feel I should defend our correspondent unfairly labelled UKIP. The point made was that new events and teams that adopt black facial make-up might fairly be accused of insensitivity at best; but that traditions that grew up in times when guising/disguising had good reason to be used should feel under no obligation to drop that aspect of their tradition (but are free to make that choice).

Other historical uses of blackface noted by Bater were in mediaeval mystery plays, where it symbolised folly and the lack of reason, in criminal activity such as burglary and poaching, in Luddites and Rebecca Rioters, etc. – transgressions where again disguise was essential. It also appears at customs marking liminal points of the year, such as New Year, when dark figures represent otherworld beings bringing luck to the world from the other side (cf. first-footing). The case for blackface as originating in English custom and tradition as symbolic disguise and not as racial othering is clear. It should also be noted that in most older and newer customs, hands and necks were not blacked, as they would be if the intent had a racial element.

Yet of course, that does not resolve the matter. Discussions with friends have alerted me to one important point that blackface defenders must consider: that any disguise is a deliberate act of ‘othering’ oneself, and the disguise may implicitly and subconsciously project ‘other’ status on those who resemble the disguise – i.e. men dressing up as women may be seen as maintaining gender-difference perceptions, and blackened faces as maintaining the awareness of racial difference. So there could be subtle and wholly unintended consequences.

It seems clear that at the very least education and information about this aspect of traditional culture is essential, to reaffirm the lack of racial intent in both its original and contemporary (but perhaps not 19th-century) form.

As Layla notes, it’s not a ‘black and white’ issue, and certainly binary responses – such as those seen in the violent attack on Alvechurch Morris5 – are unhelpful in any community. It may well be time for blackface traditions to change again. However, change is up to the performers, not up to modern moral guardians – that just reinvents Victorian campaigns to ban folk events because of their contemporary bugbears, the associated drunkenness and debauchery, and has the opposite effect of delaying natural change in traditions by entrenching local resistance to outsiders interfering in local culture.

But as Remco says, falling back on kneejerk rejoinders is no longer acceptable, and blackface performers must in my view reflect on the issues and decide whether blackening faces is still appropriate. Some teams now smudge, rather than paint, or use other colours to address the disguise element. The debate among our readers has certainly modified my own views (thank you, all!), lessening if not changing my own support for blackface; I suspect there is a generational element in attitudes that makes change likely in the longer term, and that’s fine. The first imperative though for all sides is not to judge but to be informed and to consider all aspects of the context.


Published in Northern Earth 150 (September 2017), pp.24-27




  1. Patricia Bater, ‘Blacking Up’: English Folk Traditions and Changing Perceptions about Black People in England’, MKPhil, National Centre for English Cultural Tradition March 2013, available

http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/4181/1/MPhil_upload.pdf; Theresa Jill Buckland, ‘Black Faces, Garlands, and Coconuts: Exotic Dances on Street and Stage’, Dance Research Journal 22/2 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 1-12.

  1. Darkie Day: Michael and the Mummers BBC Radio 4, 22 Feb 2016, available on iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06yr6vh. See also Bater, p202ff and passim.
  2. Daily Telegraph, Letters, 26 Feb. 2005
  3. Consider, for instance, that the oldest association of morris teams, the Morris Ring, still reject women’s and mixed teams; fielding a mixed team, as often in Border Morris, could in the 1960-70s earn barracking or worse from traditionalists – blackface disguise helped audiences to focus on the dance, not the gender.
  4. See ‘Tradition vs. ignorance’, NE148, p.9


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