Part 3 of 5. Under the cut.
I need to start by answering the alarmed queries over why I would consider doing this particular entry, which also gives me an opportunity to extend apologies for not answering any of you directly. It’s an excellent question deserving more than Because It’s My Blog. The concern is, since generally it’s hard enough to get representations of brown people in genre works to begin with, why send the mixed message of presenting ways the most extreme racial caricature can be used in a work?
I have bunches of reasons.
- Seeing the Golli show up out of the blue in the 1950s segment of the LoEG, combined with O’Neill’s statement that he and Moore want to rescue the Golliwogg by reintroducing it to the mix in a new form, threw me. It’s one of the reasons I regret the encounter happened at a signing, where there was no time available to talk to him in full and get a sense of how much of the bigger picture surrounding this character’s origin and meaning he’s aware of. He knew a lot of the technical stuff, but I have no idea if they know anything of the scope of minstrelsy in culture during the era the Golli came from or the racist meaning of blackface. Perhaps they do and simply don’t care. I don’t know. It’s been my experience that when it comes to the Golliwogg, white British people get wonky. It was in the 80s sometime when Robertson said that the Golli is part of the nation’s tradition, and to attack the Golli is to attack British culture. Which is a refined way of saying fuck you people, we care about our little nigger dolls more than we care about you.
- I believe Alan Moore’s work possibly serves as influence to other creators. If he is successful in introducing a culturally whitewashed Golliwogg into the stream, I fear what will result in less capable hands. Having TinTin out there as a cultural artifact of its place is one thing. Ripping the Golli from its moorings and trying to pass it off as something it is absolutely is not is completely different.
- Because that guy created created the hilarious blackface flowchart out of necessity.
- Because it’s a challenge. Of all the entries in this series, this one was the hardest one to do.
- Because I don’t believe in saying ‘don’t do this’. As I’ve said before, writing is research, empathy and effort; anything in the world is on deck as potential source material. But if you’re going to take on something as culturally loaded as blackface or minstrelsy, a footnote needs to be included – you’ve got to have your A-Game on. Like dealing with a select few other extremely thorny topics, this is not something one should go into without awareness. If you are a current day person choosing to toy with this construct, going into it with scant knowledge of or ignoring the big picture, is so unwise. If you choose to work with this trope willfully blind and you screw it up, you deserve whatever level of invective comes your way. You must proceed with awareness.
There are lots of people using the blackface. Unfortunately most of the ones I can think of work in the visual arts. There is Kara Walker, Mark Steven Greenfield, David Levinthal, and a few more you can find yourself. Those three, especially Greenfield, are my faves. None of their work is without controversy, and I think Walker in particular has been excoriated by older black artists. I’m unsure if they’re responding to the work or to her interviews. Probably a bit of both.
Others. DJ Spooky took an interesting approach to Birth of A Nation. A couple of months ago I came across this story by Paul Theroux that is both a good story and a nice use of minstrelsy. I liked what Bill Willingham did with Sambo in Jack of Fables, though I disagree with the implication that Sambo has been forgotten. Not only has that book never gone out of print, but Sambo, having come from the precise same cultural place as the Golli, is one of the prime constructs inflicting us to this day. As discussed earlier, though Bannerman’s Sambo is better than Upton’s Golli on a racial messaging level, her approach toward Sambo’s parents still make it problematic. Not the mention the rest of her “Little Black Whatever” work. Of course, one cannot fail to mention Spike Lee’s wonderful Bamboozled.
So, when approaching the entry, my thought is if you drop such culturally-loaded symbol in a work in today’s world, you have to use it somehow in a way recognizing what it is. You really shouldn't play games. Trying to work out that “how” has been ever so not easy. More than once I thought about giving up on this entry.
Well, with a science fiction approach, you could make the Golliwogg an alien of some kind. Depending on how you run it, you could take a Childhood’s End sort of approach, thinking here of the Overlords showing up at the end of humanity as we know it, sending a psychic jolt back through time and into the memory of the race. That might be interesting. Or you can make it an alien that just so happens to look like a mistrel/blackface/Sambo/Golliwogg by pure coincidence, removing it from the dangerous cultural flashpoints. But this leaves the question of What’s The Point? Why approach something as touchy as this image if you’re not going to do the tough work of trying to engage with it and its meaning?
Fantasy-type approach, same thing. In this type of setting, a Golli or minstrel-type could be used as a powerful, talismanic sort of character, a shamanistic creature of some kind. It could speak at a mythic/societal/cultural/political sort of level. The risk here is you could end up creating the Ultimate Magical Negro, one infused with more magical negroness than all of the magical negroes of Stephen King rolled into one quivering mass of negro magicalness.
Yeah. That’s nice and all, but vague. For the most part there was more like the two graphs above, along with me trying to cover being stumped by talking about how, in their work, other creators who existed in the timeline of the LEoG so far demonstrated the reality of minstrelsy existing widely in their culture. Because, truth be told, I couldn’t figure out a way in.
Then the thought hit that Alan Moore has already provided a marker. He talked about the concept of psychogeography in the fabulous interview collected in Disease of Language . (Since that entry, I have learned that psychogeography is a movement that’s been going on for at least 50 years. Who knew? Apparently everybody but me. A guy named Will Self who wrote a book with Ralph Steadman about this topic came to the ALOUD program at the Central Library a couple of months ago to to talk about it, but I couldn’t get off of work in time to attend.)
Then I was all !!!! Let’s approach this through place. What if I present information about a few tidbits I have encountered over the years that might serve as a jumping off point. I will not work it all out through plot level, because there’s no way I’m going to do that, but I can put it out there and anyone interested can indulge in a bit of intellectual writerly musing.
A lot of what's below has to do with slavery, because that’s another interest. It's quicker for me to go with what I know.
A lot of people know that Liverpool, where the Beatles come from, was built on slavery because of them running ships out of there long after they were supposed to stop. But it is also home to one of the oldest black communities in England, formed by former slaves, free blacks and the offspring of African rulers. Here’s a book I read about that community.
How would a person living in this highly accomplished community of blacks respond to a minstrel group? To make it interesting, what if it was one of the few black minstrel troupes coming through on tour? An American group, of course. Housing would only be available to them in this black community while in town, so what sort of tensions might arise between Group A (we are not shuffling, banjo picking, shiftless darkies, we live here and are decent people and we’re trying to make our paler neighbors across the way understand this thank you very much) and Group B (we are not either but we just play them on tv because we got bills to pay and we’re just giving the people what they want)?
Just outside of Lancashire is something even more interesting, Sambo’s Grave. Though it wasn’t a big port, Lancashire had it’s share of slave ships come through. The story goes that sometime in the 1700s an African boy owned by the captain of a slave ship was brought into the port. The kid got sick and died, his owner just left him there. The white people in that community buried him, though not in consecrated ground because they weren't sure of his religious status. (For the record, my take on this burial element of the tale.. The story is he wasn't buried in the cemetery because they didn't know if he was a Christan. But he didn't walk off the boat and immediately drop dead. He was alive for a while during his illness, they had plenty of chances to ask the crew or talk to him to determine whether or not he had Come To Jesus. More probable is they didn't want to bury a black person in their cemetery.) So anyways, they picked a place behind a hotel, buried him. Then they sort of forgot about him for about 60 years.
About 60 years later, a teacher found out about him and he raised money from the community for a gravestone. The teacher also wrote a poem for him, had it placed on the grave. The children of the community decorated the grave. To this day the children of Lancashire visit Sambo's grave, maintain it and decorate it.
The first time I came across this story, in the days before the internet(s), I didn’t believe it because I think I was in a Die Whitey mood at the time for one reason or another. But it was mentioned a few times in passing in other slavery works, and eventually I learned that it is indeed a true story. It is also a beautiful one. Thanks to the miracle of the internet(s), all you have to do is click!
Here is a close-up of the poem on his grave Here is one story about the site here is another and yet another that's really good, and here’s a bunch of pictures. Here are two pictures of the “cotton tree” mentioned. The local story is the tree grew from the seeds of the first bales of cotton dropped off the first ship in town during slavery times. Yes, they're aware cotton doesn't grow on trees.
If you don’t feel like clicking above, here is the poem on his grave because I want you to see it:
Full sixty years the angry winter’s wave/has thundering dashed this bleak and barren shore/since Sambo’s head laid in this lonely grave/lies still and ne’er wil lhear their turmoil more./Full many a sandbird chirps upon the sod/and many a moonlight elfin round him trips/Full many a summer’s sunbeam warms the clod/And many a teeming cloud upon him drips./But stillhe sleeps – til the awakening sounds/Of the Archangel’s trump new ilfe imart/Then the Great Judge his approbation founds/Not on man’s colour but his worth of heart.
Kinda progressive for a slavery port in the 1700s. A big chunk of this community's economy came from the slavers and the cotton harvested by slaves.
Another interesting tidbit is this is not a tourist spot. This place is located in pretty much the middle of nowhere, so the children who are visiting Sambo’s grave in the current day are locals. That’s pretty wild.
A story in this setting could be placed in the past or the present. Or both! Much could be done, mainstream or genre, with this place. What if a child brings her Golli doll to visit Sambo’s grave. What if it comes to life and speaks to him? Or what if a bunch of teenagers, just being teenagers bored with nothing to do, are by the grave doing the I’m a teenager, I’m bored, there’s nothing to do so I’m drinking? What if they, drunk, remember the grave being around somewhere because they used to come when they were kids, reel over to it? And, given the name Sambo, what if they start doing what drunken teens can do sometimes and make fun? And what if one of the kids in the bunch was from a minority group? How would that person react? (It would be smart to check the stats for that area first. I have no idea what they are, but I know that there are black people everywhere.) Going with the mainstream approach, what would this do to this person’s relationship to his or her peers, these people s/he thought were his/her friends? Going genre, what if Sambo came out, and the white kids saw the blackface slave but the black kid saw the African child? Should there be a squall suddenly in the sky, ship ghosting in the water, just for a second? Mainstream or genre, why would a kids from different groups, but the same town, have different reactions/experience different manifestations to or of the same object?
Yes, you could make the group of teens a bunch of hooligan skinheads and eliminate the minority kid, but that would be way too easy, don’t you think?
Frederick Douglass and his touring of England and Ireland while being hunted by a couple of minstrel troupes I’ve already talked about. This time I want to mention briefly something that I trimmed down when hacking the hell out of these entries in order to save myself. While on this tour Douglass got educated about the political situation between England & Ireland, the oppression of the Irish people, and saw how they were using blackface minstrelsy in their struggle. Ireland, like the rest of Europe, has its own tradition of minstrel storytelling that has nothing to do with the blackface stuff I’m talking about here. Okay this one I got nothing off the top of my head, but something’s there. A traditional bard minstrel, a blackface minstrel, Irish people and Frederick Douglass recruiting for the abolitionist cause.
The Irish were often called the niggers of Europe. There used to be signs on some bars in England reading “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs” (note the order).
Wales. A casual perusal of literature gives you the sense that England has this weird oogy-boogy relationship with Wales. I don’t fully understand why that is, but you can tell that Wales sort of creeps them out in general. (The symbol for one is a lion, the symbol for the other is a dragon. That can’t be by accident.
unicorn.) Update! My bad. Wales is the dragon, not the unicorn, which is Scotland, which for the record I do know. Why I mixed them up here I have no idea. So if you wanted to do something fantastical set in Wales, you wouldn’t have to jump thorugh a lot of hoops to justify it. If you need something to springboard off of, you have loads of stuff to work with, everything from King Arthur to that witch dragon thing.
If you don’t want to jump off of something old, throw this into the mix.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers (which still exists and is still fantastic) went on a brutal fundraising tour of England & its holdings, spending a lot of that time in Wales. (When I say brutal, I mean that. Some of the kids died during the trip. Nearly all of them got sick.) Everywhere they went they were advertised as being a nigger minstrel troupe, because that’s what people were expecting. When they showed up poised, well dressed, refined, and singing gorgeous spirituals none of their audience had heard of before, sometimes the crowd went wild. Sometimes, they did not, though. Having been exposed only to blackface minstrel groups before the Fisk kids showed up, audiences were confused, unable to grasp the concept of this music and its performers being legitimate. As such, the singers had to constantly endure being compared to white minstrelsy troupes, with the minstrel acts coming out ahead as far as some of the critics were concerned. Other blacks often fretted about what would happen to these songs and their meaning once they were put in front of white audiences. As far as the mechanics of touring were concerned, the singers had lots of Jim Crow-style problems. They had a hard time finding rooms. It was not uncommon for them to be kicked out of a hotel once the owner realized that he didn’t have a bunch of white people with cork on their faces sitting in his rooms.
But overall, the singers were a huge hit in England. Like Douglass, by being they made an enormous contribution toward changing perceptions. The Fisk kids sang for the rich, the working class and the poor, they sang in the streets, they sang in concert halls, churches and the drawing rooms of the landed gentry. They fended off racist attacks and marriage proposals. It was quite a ride.
When the singers hit Wales, astonishing things happened. The people of Wales made a heart connection with the Fisk kids, probably because the Welsh saw reflected in these black people their own vicious struggles with discrimination when dealing with England. The Welsh were thought to be a morally corrupt, unintelligent people, their language was demonized, stuff like that. I think their traditional religious practices were also frowned upon, but I can't remember that level of detail right now. When the Welsh saw these dignified black people fighting for the right to be taken on their own terms and viewed as human in a world that insisted they were not fully so, they saw themselves. By no means a wealthy populace, the people of Wales raised about $20,000 toward the construction fund for the Fisk University campus back in Tennessee. We're talking coal miners and farmers with plenty of their own problems coming up with that money.
The singers also met and performed for Queen Victoria, who was moved to tears. Some of them didn’t like her, but wisely kept that information to themselves. Victoria brought them to her court and had her painter do their portrait.
So, you’ve got the Fisk group, who were doing what Douglass did, but with music; you’ve got a bunch of Welsh people in their own fight against the man being influenced by them; you’ve got American blackface minstrel groups wandering around doing their thing; you’ve got a story.
Here’s an excellent book about the Fisk singers that’s a good place to start if you’re unfamiliar with them. It's a little packed, but that didn't bother me much. There's tons of other info out there about them you can hunt down at the library.
Stuff about Wales you can find out on your own.
I still like the idea of Huey & Co. v. the Golliwogg, but everybody says that’s stupid, so never mind.
In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, science fiction writer Doris Lessing shares this anecdote:
I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well-cared-for huts of the better off. There was a school, but like the one I have described. He found a discarded children's encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.
What if it was one of the Robertson jelly jars this African used to teach himself to read? What, if anything, might go through his head as he used this jar - tens of these jars, tens of tens of them - branded with the Golliwogg, a subhuman representation of black people, in his attempts to educate himself? What if we took this anecdote and altered it slightly to make it more interesting...shift the location to South Africa, where to this day there is a big blackface celebration hosted each year hosted each year by that nation's mixed race community. That gives you even more to work with. Again, this could go genre or mainstream.
Once you're done with Lessing's speech, bob over to Kwasi's site, where he explains why Lessing's speech is a little off.
This time, let's close with Toni Morrison, snipping from her 1992 monograph, the focus of which is not out of context at all: I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is a an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity of shame, of magnanimity, It requires hard work not to see this.
Next: A resource list for those who are interested in learning more about this topic.