Facing Up to Hidden Histories

Does Blacking Up Have a Place in the 21st Century?

Brian Taylor voices concern over blackface traditions in English folk tradition. This article should be read in conjunction with the other articles on this topic here.

“It is worth remembering that all discourse is ‘placed’, and that the heart has its reasons”

Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora.


“Colonisation is not satisfied with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it

Franz Fanon, quoted by Hall.


The cultural tide seems to be turning on the question of whether its acceptable for Morris sides to black up. Since Paddington Pandemonic Express abandoned full black face paint in the 1980’s many sides have followed suit, opting for other colours and/or patterns instead.(1) My own feelings on the issue have changed several times in response to what I’ve seen, heard, and read, so I’m writing this -as an enthusiastic white observer of a predominantly white English folk scene- in order to think things through, promote careful dialogue, and flag up some resources.

Bear with me while I start with some time travel. Back in the late 1970’s a fellow musician who was about to be made homeless came to live in my house. Carl “Patsy” Worrell had emigrated to this country from Barbados. He was popular in the Calder valley and had many friends but unfortunately also experienced some extremely crude racism. Carl had an impressive albeit hard won ability to defuse difficult incidents, and remained good humoured and compassionate to the end, but shared his sense of shock with me at the time. Only after he moved to Leeds in order to be close to a black community again did he feel empowered, and perhaps safe enough, to articulate some of his anger.

Much has changed since then, of course. In September 1977 a Race Relations Act came into force that established a Commission for Racial Equality to monitor its provisions. But although the cultural mainstream no longer tolerates overt racism, crude expressions still surface from time to time (2), and covert structural or institutional racism, and its denial, remains widespread.

Carl had previously lived in Birmingham where he knew the now widely revered cultural theorist Stuart Hall. What, I wonder, might those two have made of the spectacle of a group of middle aged white men in full black face paint and tatters, bashing wooden clubs to the accompaniment of accordions, had they come across them in a shopping precinct in that city? In January 2017 several young black men were filmed berating just such a troupe from leafy Alvechurch for “mocking black people” and disrupting the performance. Rather than investigating the social context of this unfortunate minor fracas -ironically, the relatively privileged dancers claim to have been dressed as historical beggars- the Birmingham Mail simply declared that ‘Brummies’, fearing the loss of a “centuries old tradition” […] “stuck up for the Morris Dancers”.(3)

Some years ago, the same paper took an aggressive line against Redditch Council over the banning of an Amateur Dramatic performance of Showboat that would have used a blacked-up cast. A key issue that emerged from the ensuing debate within Am Dram circles was that voluntary organisations needed to engage with local councils -who have a duty to promote race equality- and with ethnic minorities, in order to attract a more inclusive membership and reduce the chances of causing offence.(4) The recent EFDSS decision not to engage sides that black up reflects the same inclusive impulse.(5)

Unsurprisingly the Birmingham incident was taken up by all shades of the political right. Local Tory M.P., Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, said that he was ‘proud’ of Alvechurch Morris. During the previous week the side’s New Year’s Day Mummer’s Play had been watched by an entourage that included a man in blackface wearing a Boris Johnson wig and holding a Brexit placard, and another dressed as Donald Trump.(6)

Care clearly needs to be taken to avoid citing positive responses by Black and Minority Ethnic people in a way that undermines negative, critical, or hostile reactions to full blackface such as occurred in Birmingham and, for example, Vancouver -where a black woman blogger wrote that a blacked-up Morris team left her ‘shaking with rage’ (7). Even Trish Bater’s informative M.Phil thesis downplays the offence that can be caused by blacking up. Despite being told by a Jamaican Brummie catering team at a folk festival that ‘a lot of people was upset’ by seeing white people in black-face, she reports this as ‘some’ people, and goes on to suggest that the problem was due to misperception on their part.

Bater’s hope -that as memories of mistrelsy fade, racism recedes, and the disguise theory becomes widely known, full blackface folk dancing will no longer be seen as controversial looks optimistic in the light of subsequent events. Moreover, her reliance on the disguise explanation contradicts her own assertion that its too late to determine whether disguise was even a partial reason why early Mummers, Molly Dancers, or Border Teams blacked up (8), and Chloe Metcalfe’s finding that the adoption of blackface by dancers in the Welsh Borders was strongly linked with minstrelsy.(9) Given that earlier face blackening was associated both with stage Moorishness and characters representing ‘natural folly’, such as Vice, the Fool, or the Devil/Beelzebub (10), and, of course, the legacy of British colonialism in ‘darkest Africa’ and the Carribean, I’m not sure, in any case, that pre-minstrelsy precedents can be expected to constitute evidence of an innocent ancestral past or justification for contemporary practice.

In a profound and influential essay entitled Cultural Identity and Diaspora Stuart Hall argued that because its not possible to delineate ‘race’ in terms of biological or genetic disposition, cultural representation is of fundamental importance. Since ‘race’ and identity can’t be fixed they are subject to a constant process of production, redefinition, and appropriation. Racism ‘constantly marks and attempts to fix and naturalise the difference between belongingness and otherness’. Hall came to regard ethnicity as a critical term insofar as it ‘acknowledged the place of history, language, and culture in the construction of subjectivity’ and called for a new politics of ethnicity, grounded in difference and diversity, that would not depend upon suppressing other ethnicities. ‘We all speak from a particular place, a particular history, a particular culture […] and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are’. (11) Many subsequent commentators have since tangled with complications of post-imperial English ethnicities.(12).

Hall believed that cinema could ‘constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover places from which we speak’.(13) When the Black British film maker Michael Jenkins went to Padstow on Boxing Day 2014 to film the particularly problematical Mummers’ Day revelry he found the atmosphere intimidating. Although the traditional name ‘Darkie Day’ had been officially dropped following attempts to modify or ban the event, blacked-up mummers were still singing offensive minstrel songs. Remarkably, Jenkins persisted, and -no doubt because he was keen to listen to the Padstonians’ stories, and had talked in a radio documentary about his personal experiences of racism- has apparently had a positive response. Hopefully his forthcoming film might re-kindle the kind of sensibility that once made Cornwall a bastion of the anti-slavery movement.(14)

The Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup trace their history back to the formation of the Tunstall Mill Cocoanutters in 1857. Mindful of my friend’s awful experiences, and fearing crass parody, I avoided going to see them for many years. When I finally caught up with them I was impressed as much by their warmth, gentleness, and sense of fun, as by the intricacy of the dances. A group of men wearing skirts (or ‘kilts’) and clasping hands while holding garlands bedecked with paper flowers aloft “to celebrate the coming of Spring and the renewal of vegetation” seemed a lot more subversive than the stick bashing antics of all-male Border sides. The Nutters also appeared to have more reason than most to wear full black face paint since, for them, it doubles as ritual disguise and as a reference to the area’s coal mining history which is depicted in aspects of the dancing.

What the flyers they hand out didn’t mention, however, is the strong link between nineteenth century Coconut Dances and Colonial Era stage representations of Africans. This has been clearly demonstrated by Theresa Buckland who quotes a local suggestion that street versions probably developed out of the Victorian tradition of young people “going niggering” (sic).(15) That said, we should also note that early minstrel performances in East Lancashire would have addressed an audience with strong anti-slavery sentiments.(16) Nevertheless this forgotten aspect of the dances’ provenance raises questions about how far today’s Coconutters have made the dances their own, and how they might respond to the sensitivities of multi-cultural twenty first Century Britain.(17).

Although current explanations of ‘thow’d pagan dance’ owe much to nineteenth century pagan survival theory, Theresa Buckland acknowledges that its present incarnation fulfils a need for enchantment. Charged by repetition over many generations, the Coconutters’ Easter Saturday procession round Bacup certainly seems to work for most of its predominantly white audience as a much needed community owned calendrical rite in which the dancers “pay homage and good luck to all the townsfolk and visitors”.(18)

Unfortunately, however, twice recently I have noticed a Black or Ethnic Minority person react to full blackface dancers at a local festival with visible outrage. Yvonne Aburrow and others mention black friends who find the practice offensive.(19) Like Simon Keegan-Phillip, therefore, I’m baffled that some members of an ‘overwhelmingly liberal left-leaning’ folk scene, despite their professed good intentions, seem reluctant to consider modifying an element of their appearance that for some black onlookers will recall minstrelsy’s disfigurement of their ancestral history, that renders folk dance vulnerable to racist appropriation, and -as many sides have shown- is not essential to achieving anonymity, liminality, or dramatic effect. (20)


Submitted Autumn 2017; unpublished in magazine for space reasons



(1) Patricia Bater, Blacking Up: English Folk Traditions and Changing Perceptions of Black People in England, MPhil, National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, University of Sheffield, 2013. p181. http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/4181/1/MPhil_upload.pdf accessed 13/7/17.

(2) Steven Morris, Cardiff Medical School ‘Blacking up’ Play led to ‘Feeling of Segregation’. Guardian, 25th January 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jan/25/cardiff-medical-school-blacking-up-play-led-to-feeling-of-segregation accessed 10th July 2017.

(3) Birmingham Mail 9/1/2017 website, accessed 10//7/17.

(4) National Opera and Dramatic Association, It Isn’t Always Black and White, 2013. http://www.noda.org.uk/writeable/editor_uploads/files/nodafacts/It%20isn%27t%20always%20black%20and%20white%20V4%20July%202013.pdf accessed 11/7/17.

(5) Yvonne Aburrow, Border Morris Blackface, Gods and Radicals https://godsandradicals.org/2016/09/12/border-morris-blackface/ accessed 11/8/17.

(6) Alvechurch Morris Slay a Dragon on New Year’s Day, Birmingham Mail 1st January 2017.

http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/whats-on/whats-on-news/alvechurch-morris-men-slay-dragon-12392362 accessed 14/1/17.

(7) Vancouver Morris Men, the 2013 Blackface Controversy, You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FRPPaB6ehI accessed 13/7/17.

(8) Patricia Bater, Blacking Up, pp207-8 and 261-2.

(9) Chloe Metcalfe, To Black Up or Not to Black Up, A Personal Journey, Morris Federation Newsletter, Winter 2013. http://newsletter.morrisfed.org.uk/content/2013/2013-winter.pdf accessed 15th July 217.

(10) Patrica Bater, Blacking Up. p89-94.

(11) Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, in Jonathan Rutherford ed. Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1990 and Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, in David Morley and Kuan Hsing Chen, eds. Routledge, 1996.

(12) Simon Keegan-Phillips, Identifying the English: Essentialism and Multiculturalism in Contemporary English Folk Music, Ethnomusicology Forum, March 2017, 26:1:3-25. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/17411912.2017.1302809 accessed 26/7/17.

(13) Stuart Hall, Cultural Identity, p236-7.

(14) The Untold – Harmless Tradition? B.B.C. Website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/2rLzDFR653mHgzFzXKpfpDB/harmless-tradition and Darkie Day, Michael and the Mummers, B.B.C Radio 4 Podcast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06yr6vh accessed 27/7/17. Also Patricia Bater, Op Cit, 196-8 and 202-6.

(15) Theresa Jill Buckland, Black Faces, Garlands, and Coconuts: Exotic Dances on Street and Stage, Dance Research Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 1-12.

(16) See for example The Anti-slavery Reporter, Dec 24 1845, p236.

(17) Patricia Bater, Blacking Up.

(18) Theresa Jill Buckland, Th’Owd Pagan Dance: Ritual, Enchantment, and an Enduring Intellectual Paradigm, 2002.

http://jashm.press.illinois.edu/11.4/11-4_12-1ThOwd_Buckland415-452.pdf accessed 10/8/17

and The Britannia Coconuct Dancers of Bacup, Flyer 2017.

(19) Yvonne Aburrow Border Morris Blackface.

(20) Simon Keegan-Phillips, Identifying the English.

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