Part 2 of 5. Under the cut.
PLEASE NOTE: Keep refreshing, or come back later until it's all up. I am bouncing between networks at airports and outlets in the provinces. Because all tech hates me, my computer is not getting along with other people's internet(s). I have been having problems getting pages to load and the included links to take. At one point I thought I'd finally gotten the whole thing cut & pasted over, only to get some weird notice that seemed to my uninformed eyes to boil down to computer-speak for ACKTOOMUCHDATA followed quickly by ACKINVALID.
I think if I go a few graphs at a time I can get it up between stops. Let us see..
Update! Okay, it's finally all up.
Despite the declaration at the end of the last entry, we’re not going to explore the cultural impact of three key minstrel-sourced creations brought into the world by three different white women. Instead, we’re just going to do the one. At the very last minute it hit me that a section in the third part of this series better serves the whole if shifted here to the second part. That meant reworking the top of #2 a little bit (not counting this opener), along with not insignificant portions of #3. With that bit of rethinking, it felt obvious to me that the sections about two of the women, while very much related to the big picture point, were for the most part extraneous for now. Thus, I kicked these two women, along with 99% of their associated verbiage, to the curb:
- Helen Bannerman, the Scottish woman and child of preacher man who spent a good chunk of her life doing the colonial thing in India. She created Little Black Sambo. And Little Black Mingo. And Little Black Quibba. And Little Black Quasha. And Little Black Bobtail.
- Harriett Beecher Stowe, the American abolitionist and child of a famous Puritanesque preacher man who created Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She also wrote a bunch of other books that, frankly, nobody cares about.
Happily, some of the Bannerman and Stowe stuff will fit into the piece on Ebony that has been long alleged to be in the works around here. I think. I’ll find out whenever I get around to actually tackling that one.
And with that, let’s get to it.
The Golliwogg was created by Bertha and Florence Upton, the British & American mother/daugher team. Upton was a gifted artist who began working as a professional illustrator when she was a teenager. The lore surrounding what exactly inspired the Golliwogg varies: it was a cloth doll she played with as a child, or it was a doll a relative found in the attic; it was a doll made of black cloth or it was a doll or unspecified material. The details of that part of the mythmaking aren’t relevant. What matters is what came out once she got rolling.
Take a look. Read the whole thing, and take note of the visualization of all of the characters, because we’ll be coming back to that.
When Upton created the Golliwogg, she did not do so in a vacuum. Let’s presume you have a working knowledge of the normative beliefs of Western culture at the time, which were predicated on a xenophobic assumption of the racial and ethnic superiority of whites, along with a healthy dash of paternalism. As discussed earlier, this was also a time when blackface minstrelsy was omnipresent in Europe and America, but this facet of the Victorian/Edwardian/Roarin’/World Wars/post-War eras does not show up on Masterpiece Theater, in Hollywood costume dramas, or current day remixes of creative works from those eras. (I have a working hypothesis for why that is, by the way, though I’m only going to touch on some of it during this outing.)
That vibe of ! We Rule ! can be seen in creative works throughout those eras, and one doesn’t need to be more than reasonably well read to realize this. To grab a few names Not Exactly At Random, we of the current age can pick up almost any work by H.P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard and Sir Author Conan Doyle and understand why they are problematic on the racial front. It’s clearly there in their work.
Also clearly visible across the board, particularly in works of the Victorian/Edwardian period (but also in works from decades well past then) is just how much minstrelsy was an accepted fact of life. The creator types of then did what their peers of now – pull from elements of daily life going on around them and put to whatever use they saw fit. In the pop culture of the times, across the board, you can see direct examples of just how much minstrelsy and blackface specifically were part of the fabric of their universe.
How about a few grabs from creators and works Not Exactly Chosen At Random, examples large (blackface and/or minstrelsy is a key element of the plot) and small (blackface and/or minstrelsy shows up in passing)?
Chesterton. I was going to send you here with a long explainer, but thanks to A Nicely Person Being Helpful Out of the Blue, here’s a more precise link.
Eliot. This and this. Fully admit that Wasteland is the weaker argument; perhaps I see minstrelsy haunt that work (and wonderfully so) in part because of information about where Eliot sometimes hung out. But as far as Sweeney Agonistes goes, all I’ve got to say is that is a minstrel play, right down to its structure. It has an interlocutor, two guys who act like Tambo & Bones, a stump speech, an olio and flowing patter that jumps like ragtime. He even included a remix of a wildly popular minstrel song at the time. While it could be the “Sweeney” part of the title is intended to invoke the classic killer barber his audience would have been familiar with, *it is just as likely* that the “Sweeney” was a nod to John Sweeney, an American blackface performer who was blazing hot around that time. It is quite possible that Eliot was referencing *both* of those things. The fact that it’s not so much of a good play (to me, anyway) well, maybe that’s bcause he didn’t finish it. It could be that disconnect that comes with taking in a work on the page that was meant to be experienced through performance. Or maybe it’s actually a brilliant work, but I’m not learned enough to suss out why. (I’m told that’s my problem with opera. It’s not that my ears are bleeding, it’s that my ears are too dumb.)
Of course Twain in several different ways in this book and this book and this book. The latter has the additional funny of being the target of banning efforts since at least 1886, but back then they wanted to ban it for different reasons.
Baum had two minstrel types in the Twinkle stories, which I got tired of trying to find online. Emerson bitched about minstrelsy in a couple of essays. Again, no link.
Now, of this very quick hit and surface roundup of creators and works Not Exactly Chosen At Random, how many have been referenced, remixed, parodied and ghosted so far in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, of which The Black Dossier is the latest installment? Keep working that out for yourself as we move on.
The Upton Golliwogg was created at a time when the power structure questioned the idea of whether or not nonwhite people had souls; when racism was so virulent that it was codified in public policy, law, and science; when blackface minstrelsy was an insanely popular accepted form of entertainment. If we assume the Uptons did not live in a protective bubble cutting them off from the influence of their surrounding culture, it is of little surprise that not one but *two* blackface constructs came out of their heads when they put pen to paper in order to come up with something that would generate income for their household.
Yes. Two. Yes. Two. If you looked at the book (as directed a few paragraphs above), you saw two blackface characters. One was the Golli. The other is a musician, a straight up minstrel who comes complete with top hat, banjo and the name Sambo. What’s striking is how the third black character, a little African girl, is devoid of stereotyping. Yes, her skin is coal black, but her rendering is human – her face, her hair, her expression. Her presence shows you that the Uptons had the skills to approach their black males differently, but they chose not to. When approaching the female black character (black female = less threatening in a big picture sense), they went with a cute little human girl. When approaching the black male characters (black male = frightful threat against the order of the universe, particularly against white womanhood) they chose the emasculating, dehumanizing approach of blackface minstrelsy. Of all of the humanoid male characters in the book who interact with those two Dutch dolls, only the Golli and Sambo are visually rendered subhuman. Not the clown, or the soldier, or the juggler, or even that scissor-head thing.
The most damning evidence that the Uptons knew what they were doing when they tried to create a popular product is right there in the work. From day one. Update! I cut something out for reasons of space that I shouldn't have. Here's the short version: In every single one of the other Upton Golli books in which another black male appears, those black males are rendered extreme blackface, and they more often than not spoke with a jigaboo dialect.
The Golliwogg was not racist later. It was not racist after the fact when overly-sensitive people decided that this was so. It did not become racist once other people got their hands on the creation due to the Upton failure to secure copyright for their creation. It was racist right out of the gate, and to believe otherwise is to engage in a vigorous round of Denial Acrobatics.
Let’s go back to Eliot for a second and pull him completely out of context. He said …we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. (If you’re curious, here is the actual context. To me, that is what defenders of the faith are doing when it comes to the Golliwogg. What they need to do, for reasons I admit to still not fully understanding, is remove the character from its source in order to be comfortable with their love for it. Since the attitudes which fueled this character are unacceptable, then what follows is those attitudes never existed in direct relation to this character’s origin. To this group the Golliwogg must be cut from its cultural roots in order to be admired and celebrated as they wish, and they will go through Olympian levels of gymnastics to make make it so.
Never mind that every pigmented person who likes the work of Lovecraft, Heinlein, Haggard, Doyle, Melville, Herge and so on and so on manages to do so without pretending that the awful bits don’t exist.
What makes me twitchy about the extremely common ‘must protect the beloved childhood character’ line of thought when it comes to the Golli is how rare it is to see it paired with ‘and I acknowledge that this character is problematic’. The preference is to cast the Golli as a victim while ignoring the hard reality that this is by no means true.
Then again, the input of people who have endure beneath the hulking shadow of this trope does not count. To repeat, fundamentally blackface has more to do with the perceptions of one group at the expense of another. The thoughts, feelings and experiences of the other group does not factor into it at all.
It’s the dodge I find offensive. The dishonesty grates. The disregard, I’m used to.
Do not underestimate the popularity of the Golliwogg. Created for the kid market, it was embraced with overwhelming enthusiasm when it first came off the presses, and remains a marketing phenomenon. The books have never gone out of print. There is a dizzying array of products available on the collectible market; there were Golliwogg dolls before there were teddy bears, you know. For at least 112 years it was used as the logo by a major jelly manufacturer. The Golli even has its own museum.
Concurrent, it spawned a racial epithet still in use to this day.
The Golliwogg - like Sambo, Topsy, Uncle Tom – did not emerge from a void. Though there are significant differences in how Upton, Bannerman and Stowe used blackface and minstrelsy in their work, and there are bigger differences in their intent, those creations were all coming out of the same root. They had an impact which everyone from Frederick Douglass, who was asked to nigger up his presentations, on down to some brown kid in London who was called a wog yesterday, is very familiar with.
So when I was standing there in line paging through the book and hit on the Golli, I got twitchy.
By now you’ve had plenty of time to think about the question posed many paragraphs above: of the roundup of creators and works Not Exactly Chosen At Random, how many have been referenced, remixed, parodied and ghosted so far in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Of those works, how many contained incidents large (blackface and/or minstrelsy is a key element of the plot) and small (blackface and/or minstrelsy shows up in passing), an indicator of how prevalent this stuff was in daily life? Of those creators, how many of them have expressed their supremacist xenophobia in both their fiction and nonfiction?
Curious how very little of that has shown up in the landscape of the League so far.
While all sorts of very interesting things are being done with gender issues at every level of this series (as related to monied white women’s concerns, anyway), not so much the other elephantine topic of that era. Elsewhere, for a long time, there was a conversation going on trying to figure out if the empty space we thought we could see in the world building was in fact, there. (There was also quite a bit of wondering what is with the James Bond stuff?) It started when they went to get Quartermain, came up again when yellow peril Fu Manchu showed up, and of course there’s Nemo’s Die Whitey approach. So the Martians invade, and first thing out of Hyde’s mouth is “sky wog”? And we’re like, okay, funny, yet a little weird considering the omissions we couldn't but help to see in the League world. But on the other hand it hints at wider awareness, so let’s see where Moore takes it. Something’s got to come up eventually.
Now it has. The Golliwogg shows up very much out of context and late in the timeline. It’s as if he stepped onto a stage that had yet to be properly dressed. It makes think, yeah, there was a big hole.
If the Golli is a harmless, misunderstood construct in need of rescue, why was “sky wog” the only epithet Hyde could come up with in the immediate aftermath of the Martian attack? If that much loved character came from a place of goodness and light and never ever ever no way had anything to do with the racial mindset of the era from which he sprung why does "wog" anything as a term exist at all within the world of the LoEG? If the Golli is not problematic, why did it show up late in the game as far as the storyline is concerned? Why does it signal alien, which hints at an attempt to separate it from nasty racial milieu from whence it came? Is Moore trying to dump the baggage? Other thorny issues he’ll take on, but this he won’t?
I’ll be honest. I desperately hope that the answers will be revealed with satisfaction in The Black Dossier once I get around to reading it.
Instead of wrapping it up by taking Pinter out of context, let’s save him for another time and stick with Eliot. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
Next: If one is going to drop this type of character into a creative work, what are some of the ways it can be approached?
*** Mark Steven Greenfield, Contemplation, 2001